Restaurant owners describe the cutthroat competition for plastic cups and takeout containers as shortages continue

·3-min read
pouring coffee into plastic cup
Plastics are in short supply. Orlin Wagner/AP
  • Restaurants across the US are dealing with shortages of plastic cups and containers.

  • The plastics supply chain has been disrupted since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Some restaurants are serving drinks in glasses or asking customers to bring their own cups.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Plastic cups and takeout containers are in short supply, and it's hitting restaurants hard.

Small, non-chain restaurants are in an especially difficult position, competing for supplies with big franchises that have much greater buying power.

"Every time I order from my suppliers there is a large list of products that are either out of stock or I order them and don't receive them," Katy Arena, owner of Katy's Cafe in Ellicottville, New York, told Insider. "Today, for instance, I am missing 20 items from my order." To-go boxes and plastic cups and lids are some of the most difficult to come by, she said.

Shortages have been ongoing, and some specific availability changes week to week, Arena said. When the supplies she needs are in stock, sometimes they're just too expensive, or the only distributor with product is selling for double the regular price.

This problem is not unique to Western New York. Nova Espresso, a coffee shop in Mobile County, Alabama, is another small business experiencing the same shortages. "It kind of digressed from being on backstock to being unavailable, to eventually [the supplier] notifying us that there was like a global shortage of plastic and paper cups," Lead Roaster Piper Waddell told NBC15 News. The coffee shop has started serving drinks in glass and ceramic cups for customers who stay inside.

Cape Cod Beer, a brewery in Massachusetts, has a shortage of 16-ounce plastic cups. The owner is asking customers to bring their own cups or buy discounted glassware, The Cape Cod times reported. Capachi's Coffee, located in Arkansas, has resorted to using lids and cups of different sizes from several manufacturers so that there is something available for customers, even if they don't match.

Mark Setterington, the CEO of Island Fin Poke in Florida, told Insider that his restaurant is having so much difficulty stocking up on 16-oz cups that they've started buying them through Instacart at BJ's because his supplier can't keep them in stock. He said he's heard of distributors cutting off the lowest volume customers to keep bigger companies stocked.

"Some of our cups, lids and other packaging have increased 30-50% in the past year, and if this continues to rise in price then we will have to bump prices to reflect the increase in costs," Adam Moore, owner of Red Light Roastery in Arkansas, told the Hot Springs Sentinel Record.

The current plastic shortage felt by restaurants across the US dates back to the beginning of the pandemic, when demand for PPE and single-use products exploded at the same time, Perc Pineda, Chief Economist for the Plastics Industry Association, told Scripps in August. Meanwhile, producers were down 60,000 workers as factories temporarily closed and employees left over health concerns.

Then, the storms in Texas that caused blackouts and damaged businesses and homes across the state last winter also shut down chemical plants, stunting the supply of resin, which is used to produce plastic. As restaurants increasingly relied on takeout and drive-thru orders, which typically come with plastic ware, plastic food containers, and plastic cups, all of these items were becoming scarcer and more expensive.

Without a clear timeline for when supplies will be readily available again, restaurants might be in for a tough rest of the year.

"It's hard to run a business when you are constantly being shorted," Arena told Insider.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

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