The True Costs of Inflation in Small-Town Texas

The True Costs of Inflation in Small-Town Texas

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One Sunday a couple of months ago, Robert Rodriguez thought he’d try something new at R-BBQ, the restaurant he owns in Sabinal, on the southwestern edge of the Texas Hill Country. Wholesale prices were rising—they’d been rising since the COVID-19 pandemic began—and now a box of a hundred and eighty eggs, which had cost around eight dollars when he opened the restaurant, in 2001, was nearly fifty. Rodriguez thought of himself more as a cook than as a businessman, but he had been at this long enough to know when his costs and his revenue were out of alignment. He considered raising prices, but the thought made him uneasy; many of his customers were high-school students, or unemployed, or retirees on fixed incomes. “I was thinking that they wouldn’t want to pay more—they’d rather eat less,” he told me recently, when we spoke at his restaurant. “So I started doing the shrinkflation.” He scrambled one egg instead of two for a breakfast taco, and started making smaller pancakes.

The change didn’t go unnoticed. One of Rodriguez’s regular customers scolded him, saying that his patrons loved the big tacos. Rodriguez, who was behind the griddle that day, as he is most Sundays, decided that the experiment was a failure. “The next taco that came out was a two-egg taco,” he said. He kept the portions large and the prices low, but soon, he knew, something would have to give.

In the late nineties, the Rodriguez family provided food for an annual spring event. Their barbecue was such a hit that they set up a stand, and eventually opened a restaurant.

Restaurants have been hit hard by inflation—the price of food, particularly meat, has risen more than the over-all consumer-price index—and barbecue restaurants are among the hardest hit of all. The price of beef spiked twenty per cent during the pandemic’s first year, owing to supply-chain disruptions and COVID outbreaks in meatpacking plants. “We couldn’t get product. And when we could we paid a premium. Brisket went from one sixty-nine a pound to seven,” Rodriguez said. “And I don’t believe it’ll ever go back down that far.” This year, Tyson Foods, the country’s largest meat processor, saw its first-quarter profits nearly double. Meanwhile, all over Texas, barbecue places have shut their doors: Two Sawers BBQ, in Floresville; 1836 BBQ, in New Braunfels; Brisket Bar-BQ, in Bellaire. Emily Williams Knight, the president of the Texas Restaurant Association, recently called the rising price of brisket a “crisis.” “In Texas, in all two hundred and fifty-four counties, you can go get barbecue—that’s what we could lose,” she said.

Rodriguez’s father worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, and, in the mid-nineties, he bought the two-acre parcel where the restaurant now sits. Although the family was full of good cooks, no one had plans to open a restaurant. In the late nineties, they agreed to provide food for the Wild Hog Festival and Craft Fair, an annual spring event in Sabinal whose high point involves teams of contestants attempting to wrestle hundred-pound feral hogs into burlap sacks. (Children under five pursue five-pound piglets.) The Rodriguez family barbecue was such a hit that they set up a stand, and eventually opened the restaurant.

Rodriguez’s father (left) worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, and, in the mid-nineties, he bought the two-acre parcel where R-BBQ now sits.

Rodriguez’s father had one of his friends from the railroad company weld his name (which he shares with his son and the other men in his family) into the side of this smoker years ago.

In many small Texas towns, the local barbecue restaurant is a social and economic hub. Sabinal, a town with one stoplight, two gas stations, and one taxidermist, is no different. On many days of the week, R-BBQ—which has blue booths, red bandana-print curtains, and a daily lunch special written on a whiteboard—is one of only two lunch options that are not fast-food chains. Rodriguez’s regulars are so regular that they have a table that’s unofficially reserved for them; some know his prices so well that they come in with exact change for their meal already portioned out. “You raise the prices ten cents, and they know it,” Rodriguez said. The décor is a communal project, and includes railroad memorabilia from Rodriguez’s father, pictures of local sports teams, and a horseshoe sculpture welded by Dean Falkenberg, a frequent customer.

Throughout most of R-BBQ’s existence, Rodriguez has worked other jobs as well, first at the health clinic in town, then at the school district. His heart was in the restaurant, but he was cognizant of his father’s railroad pension and the stability it provided. “This kind of job I’ve made here with the restaurant, it’s unpredictable,” he said. “Things beyond my control could happen and ruin the rest of my life.” The first few months of the pandemic were particularly difficult. R-BBQ briefly turned into a dry-goods store, with online ordering and curbside service, selling paper towels and two-pound bags of beans. As the pandemic eased and the restaurant reopened, prices kept creeping upward. When gas prices spiked earlier this year, Rodriguez’s suppliers added fuel surcharges to his bills. He felt it at home, too, how everything on his grocery list—rice, dried beans, barbacoa—was getting pricey. Sometimes he’d joke about there being a new tax on the Mexican American diet. “You know that stuff that used to be cheap?” he said. “Well, it ain’t cheap anymore.” With prices rising, it was hard to keep his eleven part-time employees happy. When some left for better-paying jobs, it was difficult to find replacements, and Rodriguez was perpetually short-staffed. Two months ago, around the time of the shrinkflation debacle, R-BBQ went from being open seven days a week to six.

When Rodriguez started “doing the shrinkflation,” one of his regulars scolded him. “The next taco that came out was a two-egg taco,” he said.

His employees felt the pressure, too. Amber Sanchez, who just finished her sophomore year of high school, was working at the restaurant for the summer to save money to buy a car, preferably something black and fast. “It’s been really slow,” she said. You could blame inflation for that, but it wasn’t the only reason. Many of R-BBQ’s customers stop for lunch on their way to Concan, a popular swimming and tubing spot on the Frio River. This year, though, a persistent drought has dried the river to a trickle. “It’s not bad, if you don’t mind sitting in a puddle that everyone’s peeing in,” one recent visitor to Concan told me. Between the drought and the gas prices, the Concan traffic was drying up, too.

When I was in Sabinal, the lunch regulars started coming in around eleven, hanging their hats on a rack by the door with an easy familiarity. The regulars agreed that inflation was killing them, although they seemed to relish the opportunity to complain about the President. One regular, a farmer and feed-lot owner named George, told me that a fertilizer he uses had gone from a hundred and sixty-six dollars a ton in January, 2021, to more than seven hundred dollars. “You either don’t grow a crop or you spend a lot of money to grow a crop,” he said.

Many of R-BBQ’s customers stop for lunch on their way to a popular swimming and tubing spot on the Frio River. This year, a persistent drought has dried the river to a trickle.

In the small Texas town of Sabinal, R-BBQ is often one of only two lunch options that are not fast-food chains.

Falkenberg, the man who made the horseshoe sculpture, mows lawns and does landscaping for people around town. He said that he lives alone, and used to come in to the restaurant regularly, for the chitchat and the lunch specials. Now, with his customers’ lawns drying up and gas prices what they are, it was hard to justify going out to eat. “Today’s the first day I’ve been here in a while, and I used to come every day,” he said. Another patron, Stephanie Cedillo, told me that she used to visit her sister in San Antonio nearly every weekend. “She wanted me to visit today,” Cedillo said. “But I thought about the gas—going to San Antonio, and then back. I can’t do it. I used to go out. Now I go straight home from work. That’s it.”

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