By Ray Rodriguez

Armando Cervantes begins each day at the Los Angeles Fish District competing with much larger companies supplying seafood to restaurants. Cervantes works with RNP Seafood and has carved a niche by catering to high-end desert area restaurants. His story resonates through the upscale dining world.

“Costs are through the roof. Everything is expensive. Lobster, crab, and Chilean seabass have all doubled since COVID, with almost all seafood pricing way up. Restaurants can’t survive long with those prices and now we are seeing supply shortages again. We source from local waters, as well as Canada, Europe, and as far as New Zealand, and it’s getting tough, and not just because we are a smaller company. I’m getting calls from clients normally supplied by the largest companies, which means even the big guys are struggling with supply.”

“This October and November, things were taking off and it felt like fine dining was in COVID recovery. Then came mid-December. By New Year’s, most upscale restaurants were really feeling it. Now, in late January, I’m doing half the business I used to do and I’m afraid we may lose some nice restaurants like we did the first time around. Some that survived the first round of COVID still haven’t caught up on their bills, even after a good summer and fall.”

Should your idea of fine dining involve a steakhouse, as for beef prices: no professional buyer experience is needed, one need only visit a local supermarket to bear witness to sky high increases of choice and prime meat.

I think I need a drink…

Enter John Scantillo, who has 40 years of experience selling wine and spirits to Southern California restaurants. The desert has been Scantillo’s territory for 30 years, following 10 years servicing SoCal’s hottest beach dining spots. When queried about the state of upscale beverage sales, Scantillo notes, “We’ve seen a 7-year decline in wines that would sell in restaurants at $150 and up. COVID further accelerated that decline.”

Uh, ok John. But maybe I don’t need to order a bottle that expensive, even in a fancy joint?

“A lot of wine drinkers are thinking the same thing. Bottles priced at around $60 retail have done well, and there is also a lot of action on lower cost bottles. If you prefer a nice cocktail, the price of premium brands has steadily risen, so you’re seeing drink prices climbing as well.”

At this point, we pause and wonder, “how are highend winemakers are making it?” Trinchero Family Estates representative, Josh Lawrence, offers insight (though not to the benefit of upscale restaurants). Trinchero is a Napa family-owned company since 1947, with a portfolio ranging from the low-end Sutter Home White Zinfandel (in its defense, my mom likes it) to its recent partnership with Italian gourmet giant, Cerreta Wines, and co-owners of Piedmont’s only 3-Star Michelin restaurant, Piazza Duomo.

Senior Sales Specialist, Lawrence, bemoans the loss of high-end wine sales from resort hotels and upscale restaurants, where COVID has had huge impact. However, highend wine suppliers have offset that loss of sales with increases in wine shops and e-commerce. Seems more high-end diners are purchasing wine in bulk and enjoying them before they dine out or are paying corkage at the restaurant. Either presents a disturbing trend for upscale restaurants.

Even among this challenging contemporary COVID landscape, the 29 Palms Inn, established in 1929, sits proudly. Heidi Grunt is the 5th generation family operator and, surprisingly, pricing is not her first concern. “It’s labor shortages, then it’s the rising costs, as well as supply chain problems.”

Heidi, a true entrepreneur, has multiple solutions to counter current COVID setbacks. “We used the downtime to remodel, including a more pleasant dining entrance that is less obtrusive to pool guests. We designed generous table spacing. We reformatted our breakfast menu from a dining room experience to wrapped products. We reduced menu options on our dinner menu to maintain quality and consistency. We farm our own garden and act as our own supplier for fresh produce, including vegetables and herbs. On the beverage end, we even do our own homebrew Kombucha!

Bravo, Heidi and 29 Palms Inn. We may be destined for fewer places and higher prices, but with owner/operators like Heidi Grunt, we can still be well and creatively served, safely, in a unique environment.

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