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ISU Dining Service illustrates supply chain issues

ISU Executive Chef Matt Horton oversees a dining center, special event, and catering operation that serves up to 11,000 meals per day.
Charlie Schlenker
ISU Executive Chef Matt Horton oversees a dining center, and special event and catering operation that serves up to 11,000 meals a day.

It started with breaded chicken patties, though that shortage last spring was far from the last one the Illinois State University dining operation has had to scramble to fix.

Executive Chef Matt Horton says it has moved on to corn dogs, chicken tenders, egg rolls, pizza crust, and big increases in the price of chicken wings.

"The most labor-intensive products are the first ones probably streamlined or cut out completely," said Horton.

Horton said his team has had to make a lot of short-term decisions on what to serve, what to substitute, and what to serve early to buy time for other food items to ship.

“You've got labor challenges, not just in the food service industry, but manufacturing as well. Couple that with transportation issues. And then shortages of raw materials, I mean, those three forces right there affect virtually everything that we see or consume,” he said.

Even single ingredient products can be a challenge. Consider the humble potato. Potatoes are grown and harvested about once a year, usually around September and October. Growers that make French fries for everybody from ISU to McDonald's must predict what they're going to need. And two years ago the pandemic made those projections obsolete.

“We saw less potatoes available, which added to the raw material shortage. And then once you got the potatoes to a facility, having enough staff to produce different product lines such as hash browns became very problematic. We really saw disruption with potatoes,” said Horton on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

He said ISU has tried to shorten its supply lines. Shrimp, for instance, used to come from Asia; now it's the Gulf of Mexico. Even when they find something, though, Horton said it takes more effort. And if you snooze you lose, because other organizations are watching the availability of food items just like ISU.

"There is definitely more work involved with watching every single upcoming delivery to the distributor. I'll wake up in the morning and see email notifications that we had orders placed because our distributor rep is making sure we grab things as quickly as possible," said Horton. “Very quickly it becomes take what you can get and we've seen where entire segments have been wiped out where there's just nothing available.”

He said they also buy single ingredient raw produce instead of highly produced foods. Yet, there are times they have to scramble and constant communication becomes crucial.

“We're lucky we have a lot of talented chefs that I think can really come up with alternative plans. A lot of it is just thinking ahead. If we were going to serve this, in a few days, maybe we use it now. That buys us a little bit more time for Plan B, or Plan C. It's really a lot of decision making, you know, for the next few days,” said Horton.

Even obvious substitutes sometimes aren’t. Horton said special dietary requests or needs can come into play.

“Just switching out a product on the fly is kind of nerve racking. We certainly want to take our time to make sure that we're not introducing an allergen or something that would be a problem and not all of our products are the same,” said Horton.

He said ISU often tries to do fewer options better.

“Really focusing on the fundamentals that you use with five ingredients. And you can make quite a quite a few different recipes, just from just from a few things,” said Horton. “We really tried to focus on how do we do that scratch cooking, rather than, you know, frozen, processed, type items.”

One example is a grilled cheese sandwich. Instead of serving three kinds of that item, they will serve one.

“I think the students are just fine with that. You give them that highest quality product, they taste that and I think people are really less concerned about not having as many options available,” said Horton.

Shortages and transportation challenges have increased prices. Horton said he did not have specific numbers available, but he finds national media estimates of 20%-40% increases in beef prices, for example, are not far off.

“We're lucky with our scale, I think that helps us to be a little bit more competitive there. I think we've seen some interesting successes in our local food sources. We use a pork producer here in central Illinois. We get a lot of our flavor broths and sausages through them. And we've seen less of an impact there. But overall, the proteins just like the grocery store, everything's gotten more expensive,” said Horton.

K-12 schools in Bloomington-Normal have predicted conditions will not improve before the next school year. Horton agreed, saying, “I can't see how that is easily going to improve.”

Sometimes there are even quirky shortages in the production phases — not a scarcity of an item itself — that delay delivery.

“Like milk. We ran into a temporary problem where they didn't have the glue to glue the label on the container. How many trucks are involved. It's easy to say that every ingredient on a label, probably counts as a truck, and packaging too. Those are those are big hurdles to overcome,” said Horton.

He said these issues raise concerns about the security of the food web in general and particularly in mega-production facilities like yogurt. If there is a shortage of plastic containers in Texas, that will affect supply to a large number of grocery stores.

“I think that diversification will always, always help us,” said Horton, noting it's not feasible to reinvent the entire purchase system to have supply lines to compress transportation time.

“I don't think there's anything that's in absolutes, we're always going to have a need for the efficiency of, you know, broad line distribution,” said Horton.

He said there are benefits to the economy of scale, both in cost and food safety. But he said it is a good idea for ISU and other large food services to work toward a hybrid supply model.

ISU serves up to 11,000 meals per day.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.