PORTLAND, Maine — Abraham Durani cleared a lot of hurdles to open his fried chicken joint during a pandemic. You’ll have to forgive him if he didn’t see a national chicken shortage coming.
Just two months after Tasty Fried Chicken celebrated its grand opening, Durani is already spending substantially more to source poultry from suppliers.
Along with everything else, restaurants across the country are pushing through a national poultry shortage, leading to costly chicken prices when they can get the popular meat at all. The short supply has been attributed to national supplier Tyson Foods, who made a “bad decision” on a batch of roosters it used for breeding this year. The males have produced fewer hatchlings, leading to lower chicken volumes across the industry.
Those that can still get their hands on poultry — like Durani — are seeing spiking costs, with little explanation or assurance from his suppliers it’ll be over soon.
As a new business owner, he’s getting nervous.
“It’s a little scary. I’m not sure what to do,” he said. “We’re just waiting to see what’s going on.”
So far, Durani has absorbed the costs. Because his eatery is brand new, he doesn’t see much choice.
“I didn’t want my customers to wonder why the prices went up,” he said.
Durani uses halal chicken, which has to be slaughtered a certain way and prepared without ingredients like pork, blood or alcohol to respect Islamic dietary guidelines. So far, the cost of halal chicken that Durani gets from a Rhode Island distributor is 80 cents per pound higher than it was when he opened. He can save a bit by buying chicken in bulk — the cost increase per pound is slightly less stark when he does — but that can be expensive as he builds customers, and with so much uncertainty in the industry.
Durani came to Maine from Kabul, Afghanistan in 2014. He lived in New York, Boston and Tennessee before settling in Portland, where his brother lives. He worked for a Domino’s Pizza in Gorham for five years, which helped him learn English, but the dream was opening his own spot.
Owners of other chicken joints are feeling the heat too. Natalie DiBenedetto opened Figgy’s Takeout and Catering in 2015, making it one of the only places in Portland to specialize in fried chicken at the time. Now, she sees chicken sandwiches on menus all over town, a trend consistent with dietary trends across the U.S.
DiBenedetto — who goes by “Figgy” — uses cage-free, antibiotic-free chickens from farms in Quebec and New England.
“They’re already pretty expensive,” she said.
The pandemic hit her with spiking overhead costs from a variety of angles. National chicken plants like Tyson and Sysco shut down in the early pandemic for health reasons, causing downstream demands at her smaller suppliers. In the past few weeks, cases for chicken wings have “almost doubled,” she said.
At the same time, many other factors have made it harder for her to keep Figgy’s afloat. A single mother, Figgy cut the eatery’s lunch hours during the pandemic and halved her workforce to four employees, citing a tangled set of factors that include childcare issues, municipal wage increases, a costly process of maintaining online ordering systems and a workforce shortage due to rising housing costs in Portland that have pushed would-be employees off the peninsula.
Figgy hasn’t raised prices yet. Instead, she just runs out of chicken early. Her suppliers have told her that prices “are just going to keep going up,” so she’s grateful to have secured a “lock-in” price from her farms at “only” 50 cents more per pound than she paid in March.
That can work for now, but she can only hold out so long. And she’s not optimistic about anyone else operating restaurants in Maine’s food capital.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to Portland,” she said. “It’s just another blow to us after COVID.”
BDN photojournalist Troy R. Bennett contributed to this report.