November 24, 2020

Flour and Toilet Paper Are Back at N.Y. Supermarkets, but There’s a Catch

Shoppers no longer stare at aisles devoid of toilet paper. Pasta, in many shapes and sizes, is back in abundance. And eager home bakers can restart their mixers and ovens now that flour and yeast have finally reappeared.

“I was thrilled to see King Arthur whole wheat in good supply at Fairway,” David Toberisky, 68, a retiree who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, said of one highly desirable brand of flour.

But while the bare shelves brought on by the coronavirus pandemic have largely been restocked across New York City and the country, times are still far from normal at supermarkets, which face less pronounced but potentially more enduring shifts.

Americans have become accustomed to enjoying an extraordinary variety of choices — sometimes a dozen or more brands of everything from ketchup to potato chips to, yes, toilet paper.

The pandemic changed all that.

Many companies have “really curtailed the number of different offerings” they produce in order to focus on their best sellers and meet the spike in consumer demand, said Scott Mushkin, the chief executive for R5 Capital, a consulting firm focused on retail and consumer research.

Companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi have reduced the number of products they make, and during the pandemic some manufacturers have stopped producing some varieties of recognizable brands, like lightly salted Lay’s barbecue potato chips and reduced-fat Jif peanut butter.

“We’ve adjusted our operations to be as efficient as possible — and in some cases, we’re making fewer varieties of some products,” said Lynne Galia, a spokeswoman for Kraft Heinz.

Hershey’s has had to adjust to consumers wanting more chocolate bars and less gum.

“If you think about mint and gum, it’s very much a social courtesy, so when you’re home for whatever reason people are less concerned about minty fresh breath than when they are out and about,” said Susanna Zhu, the Hershey Company’s vice president of commercial planning and supply chain.

But now, as states have loosened their lockdowns, interest in gum seems to be rebounding, Ms. Zhu said. One Hershey’s brand, Ice Breakers, has started an advertising campaign built around the slogan “Mint Before You Mask.”

The shifts in production have reduced options at stores in New York and New Jersey. Shops that might have stocked six types of canned tuna fish are down to three or two, said Nelson Eusebio, the legislative director at the National Supermarket Association.

“What we’re going through is an extended period, like when there’s a huge snowstorm it takes two or three days to recover,” he said. “In this case, it’ll take two to three months to recover.”

Changes in inventory differ from store to store. Some items are still widely in short supply, including some popular disinfectant products.

“You can’t get Lysol for any money,” said John Catsimatidis, the owner of the Gristedes and D’Agostino supermarket chains in New York. “It ends up on the black market somehow and they’re overcharging customers.”

Mr. Toberisky’s search for flour, while ultimately successful, was still more work than he bargained for. Looking for King Arthur bread flour, his top choice, was “like searching for the Holy Grail.” Repeat visits to local supermarkets were fruitless, and he couldn’t even order any directly from King Arthur’s website.

Grocers are experimenting with new suppliers and goods to make up for shortfalls, like toilet paper made for commercial customers instead of more luxurious, softer options.

Some cuts of meat have also still not fully returned to many stores, in part because of meatpacking facilities that closed because of the virus. The shortages have also led to an increase in prices.

Stephen Corradini, the chief merchandising and marketing officer for Balducci’s and Kings Food Markets, said supply issues had led him to sell different cuts and to buy from unusual suppliers, like purveyors of expensive Wagyu beef that he typically only stocks for certain holidays.

“We’re still going to see challenges getting all of the meat we need, and the variety, especially in the summer months when the grills are fired up,” Mr. Corradini said.

While some shoppers have turned to Amazon and Fresh Direct for groceries, others have grown more reliant on local stores as they have become everyday home cooks by necessity, Mr. Mushkin, of R5 Capital, said.

He said that even when restaurants are eventually fully opened, a sizable number of people will likely be reluctant to return to enclosed places and will continue making meals at home.

The pandemic has also forced some shoppers with especially selective tastes to adapt to the shortages and change their buying and eating habits.

When Kyle Hamilton, a 31-year-old art dealer from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, could not find organic meat, he started embracing more vegetarian options.

“I’m definitely eating different types of mushrooms,” he said, “as well as more vegetarian and organic meat substitutes like faux-chicken tenders.”

Mr. Hamilton said the empty meat freezers turned out to be a boon because it “made me realize I was overeating meat.”

Tofu has been the most sought-after food for Nancy Cadet, a retired professor of modern languages at the City University of New York who splits her time between Brooklyn and East Hampton, N.Y.

“As vegans, fresh tofu is a main protein part of our diet,” Ms. Cadet, 68, said. “With the pandemic, we didn’t want to travel to Chinatown to try to find fresh tofu in shops.”

Ms. Cadet said that she had turned to tempeh, a fermented soy bean product, as a substitute and that she planned to stockpile freeze-dried tofu.

Many shoppers said they were going to the store less frequently and buying more when they did. Stockpiling has become commonplace.

Beth Anderson-Harold, a 70-year-old composer from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, said that her husband stocked up on green beans, pineapple, mushrooms and even Spam to help them cope with quarantine.

“When it first started, my husband bought 86 cans of tuna,” Ms. Anderson-Harold said, “of which we have used two.”

Lorraine Pastore, an executive vice president at a health care advertising firm who lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, said she was stocking up long before the virus arrived in New York.

“I am of Italian heritage, so we stockpile normally,” Ms. Pastore said. “I do have about 50 pounds of pasta at all times, and the pandemic hasn’t changed that. Heaven forbid if I don’t have the right shape for the sauce I am making.”

Still, Ms. Pastore misses the experience of shopping for food and perusing the aisles.

“I never thought I’d say this, but I miss browsing in the grocery store and seeing my cashier and delivery guy that I see every week,” she said. “I miss chatting with the local shopkeepers in the small local family-owned stores that I am too afraid to shop in anymore.”