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Baltimore restaurant owners confront $90 gloves, $50 crab cakes and a ‘broken’ supply chain

Dana Sicko said her cafe, Gundalow Gourmet in Whitehall Mill, got its first two-star review on Yelp last weekend. It wasn’t the service, or the decor that the critic objected to. Instead, they said, the prices were too high for the portions.

The cafe owner’s response? “I’m not making that much money.” In the past year, Sicko said, she has faced soaring costs for everything from to-go containers to rubber gloves — which jumped from $18 to as high as $90 per pack at a time when she and other restaurant owners are using more of them than ever before.

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Sicko recounted the experience at a roundtable Monday afternoon with state Del. Brooke Lierman. The event, held at Max’s Taphouse in Fells Point, was sponsored by Goldman Sachs’ “10,000 Small Businesses Voices” initiative, which aims to connect business owners with elected officials during the pandemic.

Restaurant owners vented their frustrations with issues like third-party delivery apps and too-short notice on pandemic restrictions. But perhaps their chief problem: the rising costs of pretty much everything, in an industry in which customers can be hypersensitive to price increases.

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“No one down here is making money. Let’s be honest,” Max’s Taphouse owner Gail Furman said. Pre-pandemic, office workers would fill her two-story Fells Point pub for events and happy hours. Those customers are absent lately. Instead, she said, “All our costs have gone through the roof.”

Furman said the cost of chicken wings had surged up to 3.5 times its usual amount. The cost of crab is now so high she removed crab cakes from the menu altogether. “For us to serve a crab cake we would have to charge $50,” she said.

In a national survey this year, the Goldman Sachs group found that 83% of small-business owners reported a rise in operating costs, and nearly half have had to increase their prices.

Sicko said she doesn’t think most customers realize how slim her profit margins are. Particularly since the pandemic, she’s spending more than ever before on things like to-go containers and cleaning supplies, while striving to pay workers around $15 an hour. If the prices for lunch seem high, Sicko said, it’s not as though she’s pocketing the increases.

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“I don’t secretly have a super fancy car someplace,” she said.

Khari Parker, who owns Connie's Chicken and Waffles in Fells Point with his brother Shawn, said his restaurant has seen the cost of chicken double at points during the pandemic. Instead of raising prices, he has looked to save money in other areas.
Khari Parker, who owns Connie's Chicken and Waffles in Fells Point with his brother Shawn, said his restaurant has seen the cost of chicken double at points during the pandemic. Instead of raising prices, he has looked to save money in other areas. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Khari Parker, owner of Connie’s Chicken and Waffles, said he’s seen the price of chicken double. Instead of raising prices, Parker has urged staff to look for efficiencies in how they do business, for example reducing waste of containers and other supplies. “If this is a temporary change, we don’t want to make a permanent change to the prices,” he said.

Lierman, a Democrat who is running for state comptroller, expressed sympathy for the business owners’ plight.

“As the economy is changing we have to be very cognizant of the trends that are moving through Maryland and the rest of the country that create challenges,” she said after the event. Lierman touted programs like Maryland$aves, which helps small business owners looking to offer retirement benefits to their employees.

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