Fried, over easy, sunny-side up — in an omelet, atop a Benedict, alongside crispy bacon and buttery grits — eggs are a very big deal at Trip’s Diner.
Between their Tampa and St. Petersburg locations, cooks there can crack 2,000 eggs a week.
“I can’t be a diner and not have eggs,” said owner Phillip Ingram.
But the current eye-popping price of eggs — costing close to $6 a dozen in local grocery stores, with suppliers’ prices doubled and even tripled — has hit restaurants and consumers alike.
Case in point: When the Himes Breakfast House opened in South Tampa a year ago, a box of 180 eggs cost $30.59, said general manager Steve Pachmayer. Recently, he found himself paying $98.51, more than triple the cost.
“There’s no problem getting them,” Pachmayer said. “The problem is paying for them.”
Experts blame a perfect storm of bad news: an outbreak of avian flu that has wiped out millions of chickens, plus supply problems that have dogged a myriad of consumer goods thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. With the holidays came high demand for eggs for traditional cooking and baking, though that demand has begun a post-holiday retreat.
At a sampling of Tampa Bay-area Publix, Winn-Dixie and Trader Joe’s stores last week, a dozen large white eggs ranged from $4.49-$5.79, with prices for larger eggs even steeper.
Compare that to six years ago, when the Tampa Bay Times reported the unusual phenomenon of eggs selling locally for as little as 79 cents a dozen in the recovery from a price boom caused by an influenza outbreak at chicken farms across the Midwest.
Given the current sticker-shock of store-bought eggs, Tampa Bay neighbors who raise backyard chickens might be looking pretty smart right now — except that chickens slow their egg production in the winter months.
“Actually, I have to buy my eggs right now because our girls are not laying a lot of eggs at the moment,” said Stephanie Fields, who works in education consulting and lives in Tampa’s Forest Hills. She has six hens, including Peaches and Clementine.
Sometimes Fields has dozens of eggs to give to friends and neighbors. But for now she’s paying $5.99-$7 a dozen for higher-end eggs.
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Still, interest in backyard chickens is up — as has happened in other times of economic change, according to Lisa Steele of the Fresh Eggs Daily blog.
In the recession that started in the early 2000s, and again in the pandemic, enthusiasm for at-home chickens increased dramatically, said Steele, who has written books on raising backyard flocks and hosts Welcome To My Farm on CreateTV.
Early in the pandemic, “people flat-out panicked: ‘I need to get some chickens right now,’” she said. “Store shelves were empty and having a food source in your backyard gives you a sense of security.”
Given egg prices, “I don’t see the demand or interest waning anytime soon,” Steele said.
Better news: Eggs seem to generally be available, and experts hope prices will stabilize in the coming months.
“The good news is that laying hens grow very quickly. They can start to lay eggs between 18 and 22 weeks old ... so ... prices should start to come down by mid-February,” Phil Lempert, food marketing expert and founder of SupermarketGuru.com said in an emailed response to the Tampa Bay Times. “Not to the level that they were ($1.90 a dozen) but much less than the current national average of around $3.50.”
Meanwhile, some local restaurants try to balance modest price increases and other hacks to weather the current egg-related storm.
“You look where you can save elsewhere,” Pachmayer said. “I found take-out containers 10 cents less. We try to nickel and dime ourselves to make up the difference.”
Given that Trip’s is a diner, Ingram said, “we want to keep our prices approachable at value pricing for our guests.” Modest price increases haven’t gotten a lot of pushback from customers, he said.
“I think everyone for the most part kind of understands what’s going on,” he said.
If a customer does inquire about a menu price increase, Pachmayer keeps a list to show them how much eggs have gone up — along with bacon, grits and other food items.
“They go to the grocery store. They know what the inflation is,” he said. “They understand.”
Ingram noted restaurants have dealt with a lot, most recently courtesy of the pandemic.
“We’re a resilient bunch and we figure it out,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider it a crisis, I would consider it a little bit more challenging.”