Gone From Grocery Shelves, Now There’s a Mad Dash to Find Them

The fallout from the coronavirus hit Allison Arevalo when she could no longer find pasta at the supermarket.

She tried ordering online from Whole Foods. Out of stock. She ran over to Key Food. Too late: The pasta aisle was cleaned out except for two bags of whole wheat no one wanted.

So Ms. Arevalo, 41, a chef and cookbook author, dusted off her fancy pasta maker and ordered a 50 pound bag of semolina flour from a restaurant supplier. Soon, her neighbors in Park Slope, Brooklyn, were turning to her for their pasta fix.

“I wanted to give people another way to get pasta,” said Ms. Arevalo, who now sells 120 pounds of pasta a week.

As the pandemic has gripped New York, it has caused shortages of the grocery staples that have become essential for coping with home confinement. Pasta and bread have become scarce — available today but not tomorrow, in this store but not that one. Paper towel and snack aisles have been wiped out. Frozen vegetables, chicken nuggets and even oat milk are rationed.

The empty shelves have sent frustrated shoppers to online scavenger hunts and to store after store to wait outside in long lines. Baking supplies — yeast, flour, baking powder — have become particularly prized finds as people stuck at home have time to perfect their challah bread or knead out their anxieties.

“Everybody’s becoming a mini-Martha Stewart,” said Joseph Viscomi, a supervisor for Morton Williams, which now limits customers to one yeast package each and has waiting lists at many of its 15 New York City supermarkets.

Five-pound bags of King Arthur Flour have been so hard to score that they were selling this week on eBay for $26.49, five times the store price.call center tracking system software.

“There’s a black market for flour right now,” said Cristen Kennedy, 38, a college health educator who has scoured a dozen grocery and baking sites since flour disappeared from her grocery store in the Bronx.

The shortages began with panic buying and hoarding as the pandemic spread, and then continued as those staying at home consumed more meals, snacks, paper products and cleaning supplies.

“I never knew we ate so much,” said Nelson Eusebio, the government relations director of the National Supermarket Association, who said he was spending between $50 and $75 more per week on his groceries than he used to.

Oat milk has become a hot commodity, in part as coffee shop regulars have become home baristas. It topped a list of fastest-moving grocery items nationwide, with sales up 353 percent over last year, according to Nielsen data of consumer packaged goods for an eight-week period ending April 18.

The slow movers? Sunscreen and vegetable party platters.

The tidal wave of grocery shopping has wiped out inventories at grocery stores and, in turn, the food distributors that send them goods.

Since most stores rely on specific distributors, what they have — or don’t have — on the shelves depends on what their distributors have in stock, and that can vary from store to store.

The inventory shortages have spread to the part of the food supply chain that serves retail stores, while another part that serves now-closed restaurants, hotels and schools has been so overwhelmed by a surplus that farmers have destroyed fresh food that cannot be sold, according to food industry analysts.

Some manufacturers have run up against limited production or packaging capacity, or cannot find enough trucks to move additional loads. Many meat processing plants have closed as their workers have been sickened by the coronavirus.

“The problem is that the supply chain — which is everything from the farm to the supermarket shelf — is fragile at certain points, and that’s why we’re seeing the shortages,” said Phil Lempert, a food industry analyst and founder of supermarketguru.com.

So now Frank Zapata cannot get enough Nissin instant ramen noodles for the two CTown supermarkets he owns in Brooklyn and the Bronx. “When everything is normal, my supplier has a lot, whatever you want to get,” he said. “Now it’s hard to get, it’s not available.”

Morton Williams is missing about 10 to 15 percent of its regular stock, which is better than a month ago, when it was down nearly 30 percent, Mr. Viscomi said. When he orders 10 cases of two-pound Gold Medal flour bags from a distributor, he said, “we’re lucky if we get two cases, and that sells out in a day or two.”

Gristedes and D’Agostino supermarkets have been cleaned out of Charmin toilet paper, Bounty paper towels, and Lysol and Clorox cleaners. “Six months ago, you had one bottle of Lysol for your home, now everybody wants to have one bottle for every room,” said John Catsimatidis, the chief executive of Red Apple Group, which includes the supermarkets.

His supermarkets have turned to alternative brands and tried to tap new suppliers. A Canadian company was ready to send a truckload of Clorox wipes and sprays until its driver refused to deliver to New York.

Still, shopping for oat milk and Oreos may soon get easier as some manufacturers expand their production and distribution operations.

In the past month, Mondelēz International has increased snack production in the United States in response to double-digit sales growth of its brands, including Oreos and Ritz crackers.

It has also hired 1,000 more workers for “front-line teams” in manufacturing, sales and distribution to get snacks onto store shelves faster, said Glen Walter, president of the company’s North America division.

The pandemic has accelerated the expansion of Oatly, a Swedish company that has grown steadily since introducing its oat milk to New York coffee shops in 2017.

Oatly is now manufacturing an average of 500,000 cartons a week at its factory in New Jersey, up more than 40 percent from the 350,000 cartons per week it was making in January.

“It still won’t be enough to keep the shelves fully stocked,” said Mike Messersmith, president of Oatly North America.

King Arthur Flour has more than doubled production to 5 million bags of flour a month, up from less than 2 million a year ago. Extra shifts were added at mills and manufacturing plants, and two assembly lines were repurposed to pack flour into plastic pouches that will be sold on the company website, said Bill Tine, King Arthur’s vice president of marketing.

Robb MacKie, the president and chief executive of the American Bakers Association, an industry group, said that more flour was heading to store shelves, with yeast not far behind. “We’re seeing daily improvements,” he said.

The shortages have changed the way that Ms. Arevalo, the chef-turned-pasta maker, shops for groceries. She used to choose a recipe and stop for ingredients, now it is the other way around.

Her fresh-made pasta has become so popular that she takes orders, selling out in an hour and a half. She charges $6 per pound online, and leaves the pasta in white paper bags on the stoop of her brownstone. Only one bag has been stolen.

Even when the pandemic ends, she may keep offering pasta pickups.

“It’s been this very satisfying way to connect with the neighborhood,” she said. “I can’t imagine stopping it now.”