Caribbean and Asian restaurants, students describe food supply in uncertain

Culture-specific cuisine in Gainesville has faced accessibility hurdles resulting from price hikes on hard-to-find ingredients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Economic upheaval due to the COVID-19 pandemic has made ripples in the city’s food landscape, as store owners experience increased ingredient prices and customers remain wary of dining in. Student shoppers could see fewer options on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus as a result.

Prum’s Kitchen, a Cambodian restaurant that first opened in January, only had two months of normalcy before sales plummeted due to the pandemic, said Bo Prum, 54. Prum, who co-owns the 6 S. Main St. restaurant with his wife, Leanna, said they’ve had to spend between $2,000 and $5,000 from their savings each month to keep the business running.

Ingredients such as lemongrass and Kaffir lime leaves, which are both used to marinate beef skewers, chicken skewers and stir fry at Prum’s Kitchen, doubled, and sometimes tripled, in price. Prum said he buys the greens at Chun Ching Market on 418 NW Eighth Ave., but he said the Asian grocery store has struggled with supply.

Prum had to increase his weekly trips to Sam’s Club, where he gets chicken, beef, pork and lettuce for the restaurant, to daily trips due to dwindling stock. 

The couple decided not to raise prices despite struggling financially, because higher prices might deter the few customers they have. A typical meal at Prum’s costs about $12.

They’ve frozen enough ingredients to last in spite of shortages, and they have few enough customers that their supply won’t run out, but they have no guesses for what the future holds for Prum’s Kitchen, Prum said.

Khetpapol Limphoka, owner of If It Is Kitchen and Café at 104 S. Main St., said procuring all the specific ingredients required to make its intricate Thai dishes has been a challenge.

One such dish, If It Is Kitchen’s house-made curry, needs almost 25 ingredients. If even one is missing, the restaurant can’t make it.

Limphoka usually imports some items, like spicy Thai peppers and fruit purees used in drinks, from Thailand, but because products were stopped at customs due to the pandemic, he has had to periodically remove dishes from the menu.

Ethnic grocery stores have also suffered financially due to price hikes and item shortages from vendors, said Fawzy Ebrahim, the 48-year-old owner of Zeezenia International Market.

Zeezenia, located at 2325 SW 13th St., sells Turkish, Persian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Bulgarian, Indian and Hispanic foods. Ebrahim stocks the store with imports from about 15 vendors.

The prices that Ebrahim must pay for most items, like pastrami, increased at least 30%, he said. Others, like the spice cardamom, increased dramatically by about 125%. Still others have been completely out of stock. Ebrahim has asked for the Bulgarian butter and cheese that has been out of stock for six to seven months, but his vendor has no answers yet.

With increased prices at the market, sales have dropped about 75-80% during the pandemic, Ebrahim said. Sales typically go down in the summer months when most college students head out of Gainesville, but the sales haven’t gone back to normal because many students decided to stay at home.

Food supply shortages initially added a hurdle for Caribbean places in the city as well, said Darron Alvarenga, co-owner of the fast casual eatery Caribbean Spice.

“It’s stabilizing now, but for the first three months, it was staggering,” he said. “It’s really having a tremendous impact across the restaurant industry, especially for smaller mom and pop restaurants.”

Alvarenga said Caribbean Spice, located at 1310 NW 23rd Ave. in Gainesville, takes pride in its family recipes, where most of the dishes are made from scratch. The restaurant searches locally for fresh meat and produce and buys from suppliers specializing in Caribbean ingredients. The Jamaican eatery also…

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