There's been no panic buying run yet, but Tampa Bay food sellers are rationing bulk buys of Asian basmati and jasmine long-grain white rice in hopes of avoiding one.
"We've got plenty of supply," said Trevor Knowles, front-end manager at Costco Wholesale Club in Clearwater, which is limiting rice purchases to seven 25- to 50-pound bags per trip. "We just want to be sure people don't create a shortage by hoarding."
It's another facet of the global food shortage showing up in the Tampa Bay area. Drought in Australia, bad weather in Vietnam and Thailand, rising customer demand, soaring prices and food shortages that unleashed riots in some Third World countries have combined to help trigger a form of food rationing locally at places where many restaurants get their rice. Some rice-producing countries have restricted exports so they can feed their own people.
Costco is trying to rein in restaurants that two weeks ago started stockpiling rice in anticipation of a shortage. Sam's Club, Wal-Mart's wholesale club unit, on Wednesday slapped a four-bag limit on basmati and jasmine nationally, even though wholesale prices for business members there remain steady at $13.23 for jasmine and $15.46 for basmati.
At Cho Lon Oriental Market in St. Petersburg, clerks are trying to limit families to 10 bags and chill restaurants' fever to overload their stockrooms by dropping the 50-cents-a-bag discount for volume buyers.
Despite attempts at restraint, Sam's Club in Palm Harbor ran out of basmati Wednesday afternoon and could not say when replenishments will arrive. Cho Lon's prices have bounced up like soaring rice futures prices and the store's supply has been cut in half. And Cho Lon is out of Waterfall brand rice, a Thai product that's the most popular brand among its Asian restaurant customers.
"So they've been buying whatever they can get at the best price," said Yung Chau, butcher, cashier and son of Cho Lon's owner. "We can't even order Waterfall until June."
The rationing on both rice and some types of flour elsewhere began earlier this week on the California coast and spread east.
"There's been an increase in purchasing, but we think we can handle that," Jim Sinegal, Costco's chief executive officer, told Reuters on Tuesday. "If a customer came in and said, 'I want 10 pallets of flour,' we'd probably say, 'We can give you one.' We've tried to modify restrictions so if somebody is buying a reasonable quantity, we let them have it."
None of the wholesale retailers contacted in the Tampa Bay area Wednesday is limiting flour purchases. Tampa Bay area supermarkets also report no interruptions in supply of flour or rice, but deal less in bulk sizes.
It's made for ticklish choices at local Asian restaurants. Passing higher costs on in higher menu prices isn't an easy swallow in today's consumer spending malaise.
"We got another brand of rice, but we're paying much higher prices," said Kachen Kochasuntorn, manager of Lai Thai Restaurant in Tampa. "We're just hoping to balance it out by attracting more customers."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or