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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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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.

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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 imports goods, like the Scotch bonnet peppers used in homemade spicy pepper sauce, directly from the Caribbean.

However, the prices for oxtail, used in the oxtail lunch and dinner plates, and beef, used to stuff Jamaican patties, tripled in April, he said. Other ingredients experienced a price hike of about 32-35%. While the prices have gone down slightly since then, they haven’t deflated back to pre-COVID-19 costs yet. Caribbean Spice hasn’t taken anything off the menu to compensate, and it doesn’t plan on increasing meal prices either.

“We've been trying to see if we can absorb some of that expense,” Alvarenga said. “I’m conscious of the fact that a lot of people are hurting, and some of those people are our customers.”

Some Caribbean students at UF said the pandemic hasn’t affected how much Caribbean food they can find in Gainesville, although it is limited compared to where they’re from.

In Gainesville, Kimberly Thompson, a Jamaican 19-year-old UF health science sophomore, can buy seasonings from Walmart to make curry and jerk chicken. 

But she goes back home to Fort Myers for goat meat, pig’s feet or oxtails, and she buys from Jamaican or Haitian mom and pop shops.

She’s able to drive back more often with the flexibility of online learning.

To avoid increased meat prices at grocery stores during a period of meat shortages, Thompson said her family stocked up on larger portions of meat than usual from butchers and bought meat directly from farms.

As people took up baking as an at-home hobby, they also took up the flour and yeast supplies in grocery stores. This made it harder for 21-year-old UF public health and biology senior Carrisa Sookoo to get ingredients for roti, an Indian flatbread.

“Other than that, I don’t think any other ingredients were affected too badly,” Sookoo said. “I usually buy it in bulk because I know I make it a lot.”

Sookoo hasn’t found ready-made Trinidadian food anywhere in Gainesville, so she either brings her mom’s cooked meals or prepares dishes herself. She usually makes rice with chicken, peas and other vegetables.

“I don’t get the same authentic food that I like to eat or from my mom’s house or that I would get in South Florida, but I do get to get something if I really do want it,” she said.

Like Thompson, Sookoo also shops at Walmart for browning sauce to make chicken and beef stews and for spices like cumin and turmeric. She stops by India Bazaar, located at 3550 SW 34th St., to get curry.

Sookoo buys larger quantities and tries to limit her time in restaurants and grocery stores in an effort to limit her exposure to COVID-19.

Asha Clarke, a 19-year-old UF anthropology sophomore, loves eating ackee and saltfish and buying Jamaican food from Caribbean Queen, located at 507 NW Fifth Ave. But during the pandemic, she’s eating less Jamaican food — not because of unavailability — but because she’s cut back on eating out as a precaution.

“I'm just trying to be extra safe because people are partying, and I live near Midtown” she said. “I feel like going to the Jamaican restaurant in Gainesville with my COVID protocol is out of the way or increasing exposure in a way.”

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