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freaky fries days

Ken Hoffman gets salty and warns us all about potential french fry crisis

Ken Hoffman gets salty about a potential french fry crisis

french fries ken hoffman
A shortage in this commodity could have career ramifications for our columnist.  Courtesy photo

Right now in America, there’s a truck driver shortage, teacher shortage, blood shortage, construction worker shortage, EpiPens shortage, and Air Force pilot shortage. And, a gas shortage is always around the corner. They're all serious business, especially the “help wanted sign” for Air Force pilots, but there’s a possible shortage looming that has worry lines creasing my forehead.

What if America runs out of french fries? I could be out of business (!).

We'll be fried
Here’s the situation: America’s french fry factories are working three shifts around the clock, seven days a week, and as James Brown used to say, they “can’t do no more.”

And they’re still having trouble meeting demand. They're slicing potatoes and frying up shoestrings and crinkle cuts and waffle fries and tater tots to their limit. Taco Bell adding french fries in their 6,600 restaurants has only increased the pressure on producers.

Some fast food chains in other countries already are limiting the size of fry orders — small only — to customers. Some countries are offering substitute sides, like yucca fries. I had them once in Cuba. They're not bad.

One online Wall Street tout recommends buying stock in french fry companies to profit from the “worldwide frozen french fry shortage.” He said, and I’m not certain he was kidding, “Potatoes don’t grow on trees, you know.”

So what’s causing this scary scenario? Of course, bad weather always plays a part, and the trucker shortage is slowing delivery of products from Idaho and Maine.

But the number one reason for a possible french fry shortage is, as the Pogo comic strip once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Americans eat too many damn french fries. Farmers and factories are having trouble keeping up with our bad eating habits. The national chains get a lot of the blame, too. They've made it too inviting and cheap for customers to add french fries to their drive-through bags.

Used to be, most customers walked or pulled into a fast food joint and ordered their favorite sandwich, usually a soft drink, but only sometimes fries. Then the fast food chains started “Meal Deals,” or as they’re known in the trade, “bundles.” Now you could order your entree (a premium sandwich, wrap or fried chicken), fries, and soft drink for one price — lower than you’d pay if you ordered the items individually.

Fries became a throw-in, which boosted the price of your meal, and increased profits — with limited expense to the restaurants. Demand for french fries skyrocketed with the introduction of “Meal Deals,” but nothing the potato companies couldn’t crank out. But something’s happened recently in your friendly drive-through that have potato factories “running lines” night and day, never flipping the off switch.

It’s the “4 for $4” or “5 for $5” cheapo craze that bundles a small burger, small fries, a cookie and soft drink, or similar items from the discount “Dollar Menu.” A source in the fast food industry told me, “With ‘Meal Deals,’ our regular combo customers got french fries with their order. But now even our lower end ‘Value Meal’ customers are getting french fries, too.”

I asked, why don’t U.S. chains offer other side dishes to take the pressure off french fries? The source said, “Other sides aren’t as profitable as fries.”

Hopefully french fry rationing won't happen here, but stranger things have happened. Recently supermarket customers in France were slugging it out because there was a shortage of Nutella.

(I once had to postpone a teeth cleaning because there was a shortage of nitrous oxide in the U.S.)

In the meanwhile, here’s a fast food trivia question to divert your fret over fries.

Question: What item available in practically every fast food joint provides the restaurant owner with the highest-profit margin?

Answer: iced tea. 

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