HISTORIC TRIANGLE — As the world finds its way into 2022, it’s kind of hard to remember what life was like before the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are now vaccines, testing kits, and precautions, like wearing facemasks, that have become commonplace to help protect individuals and their loved ones. However, despite our best efforts as a society, the Omicron variant has now reached the United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia. With this recent development, there are looming questions as to how much of an impact the virus will continue to have on the country going into the new year.
One question at the top of the list of those that still need to be answered, at least amongst business owners and policymakers, is: How do we fix the supply chain issue?
To answer that question perhaps it’s better to start with the catalyst of it all. If you were able to take a time machine and travel back to Wuhan, China in early 2020, you would find a city, with a population of around 11 million, in complete panic. China made the decision to lock down the city on Jan. 23, 2020. The news in the U.S. was that there was a citywide lockdown taking place in one of the cities of our most important trading partner and, just like the virus that began to spread across the world, so too did the rumors.
Rumors about the millions of Wuhan locals stuck in lockdown made waves on the internet. Rumors about a bat and a new virus which was soon given the moniker of “COVID-19,” internet conspiracy theories about a lab accident gone terribly wrong, and glimpses of chaos caught on cellphones that were leaked to western media outlets by Wuhan locals. These were all that we had to base our understanding on during those early days of the pandemic.
Almost two years later and we now know the rest of the story.
So what is a supply chain?
When an online shopper orders a product from a major retailer like Amazon, Walmart, or some other big corporation that moves thousands upon thousands of products through their warehouses every day, they expect it to be delivered on time.
What the consumer typically doesn’t think about are the lengths and negotiations that virtually all of those products have gone through in order to get right to the customer’s home.
Take your smartphone for example.
The smartphone must come from the natural raw material, then it must go through the manufacturing of all the different components, assembly, then packaging, and probably the most demanding of all, the lengthy shipping process. Products can travel from all corners of the globe just to get right to the customer’s front door.
The smartphone example is used by Ram Ganeshan, a business professor at The College of William & Mary (W&M). This example describes the “Forward moving supply chain.” Professor Ganeshan describes another type of supply chain called a “Post Consumer Use Supply Chain.”
“I use my iPhone and I’m done with it. What do I do with it? I recycle it or maybe I send it back to Apple,” said Ganeshan. “This firm would then disassemble the product and then try to reuse some of the metals and melt down the aluminum. That’s what is called completing a loop. Ideally where everything is going is to make this sustainable which means whatever you take out of the Earth you keep using that.”
During the peak of the pandemic, consumers started switching from using services to using products.
“There was a demand increase in actual products from services. It turns out, the majority of all these products are made in Southeast Asia,” said Ganeshan. “Specifically in China. So not only did they not work for a month, now suddenly the demand increased by ten to thirty percent.”
There’s still a massive demand for products coming out of China, which also means there is a massive demand for ships coming to use the ports at a significantly greater rate than you can unload containers that carry those products.
How does this impact local resturaunts?
Scott Hoyland is the co-owner of the local restaurant, Culture Café. He says that the supply chain shortages have been felt across the local restaurant industry.
“It just really depends what day of the week it is because suddenly there is a product and then there won’t be a product,” said Hoyland in an interview with WYDaily. “Like right now I’m having a hard time getting duck legs of all things. Next week it might be plastic silverware. It’s just absolutely insane and you just have to make your menu and operate your business around that. Literally, it could be paper bags. It could be salt. It could be anything.”
Hoyland says that Culture Café is fortunate because it can make switches on the menu pretty much on the fly as all its food is cooked to order, and it comes from a wood-burning oven.
“We can kind of switch as we need to. We just try to be flexible and have a good time with it, but it is actually the running joke in all the restaurants that any time you’re out of anything you just say it’s COVID[-19]-related,” said Hoyland. “You can say, ‘Oh I understand, they might only have this because that’s kind of like the eclectic-ness of what we do.’ For other people, especially if it’s more of a gourmet room, if you don’t have duck legs it could be the end of the world. At culture, we can kind of change it on the fly so we don’t have to be so locked into what we’re doing.”
Many anticipate that the supply chain issues will be fixed in the upcoming year. However, it’s not the only pandemic-related issue the Historic Triangle faces right now.
“I think all the commodity products will eventually come back, but the staff is the hard one,” said Hoyland. “People have to realize that the restaurant industry doesn’t have to be this brutal monster where you’re working a hundred and fifty hours a week and not getting paid for it. It actually can be a humane environment. Right now, between the product and the staff, it’s really difficult because people don’t understand. They did understand in the beginning with COVID[-19], but now it’s getting to a point where people are coming out again and they don’t understand why we can’t switch on a light and make it go one hundred miles an hour. “
People will always come to a tourist destination with an expectation. Visitors will arrive for the holidays as well as at various seasons next year. Local businesses like Culture Café are prepared to take on these international challenges in 2022 just as they have been over the past year.