COUNTING THE COST
A hundred bucks for cooking oil? How sky-high prices are frying your budget
Prices of cooking oil, butter, bacon and more are sky-high and climbing, with consumers blindsided by surging prices. Sunflower oil costs more than olive oil did not so long ago. A random supermarket basket costs R300 to R400 more than a year ago. And restaurants are feeling the pinch as the cost of ingredients soars.
It’s not always easy to keep track of what costs what when you’re doing your shopping. Who can remember what things that last a while were the previous time you bought them? Not I. Other items you buy more frequently, or regularly, you have a rough idea of how much they are, or should be, and small fluctuations are noticeable and sort of acceptable because, well, inflation is a thing.
Then, to make it more fun, there are special offers. All the time. At different supermarkets. Butter, for example. It wasn’t that long ago – relatively speaking – that finding it for R20 a block was a win. Now, in 2022, two for R100 must be snapped up and put in the freezer with the rest because where will this threshold end? I have no idea what kind of butter disaster I am anticipating but I cannot stop myself from doing this. It’s probably a good thing I don’t have a massive chest freezer.
I think I have a fairly good idea of average prices, what’s a good deal and what’s a ripoff, but the pantry staple that stopped me in my tracks was sunflower oil. Yes, we’ve been warned the war in Ukraine is going to affect this but this was several months ago, long before the Russian invasion. I don’t use it very often, but I keep it on hand for making aïoli. I remember seeing it on the shelf and thinking to myself, “What the actual heck (something like that)? When did that happen?”. I don’t recall the exact price; it was less than it is now but way more than before. What it is now is between R90 and R100 for two litres. [I’ve seen it for R102, so that ceiling has been breached and will be again. – TGIFood Ed] That’s a lot. And it’s likely to go up even more. Don’t get any ideas about stockpiling, if you’re buying from Woolies. Online only allows you to select “quantity: 1”, R99.99 or R89.99 with a Rewards card.
“At Woolworths, we strive to keep our price increases to an absolute minimum. There are, however, circumstances which often lie outside our control which have an impact on price adjustments,” said Warren Dam, Head of Central Buying, Foods.
“We will only accept a price adjustment as a last resort after exploring all avenues to prevent one. Based on our long term relationships with our suppliers, we work with them to best understand how we can hold off price increases.
“Due to the unprecedented Ukraine-Russia crisis, we have seen cost impacts in oil commodities and due to stockpiling, we have also limited purchases on sunflower and canola oil for the time being to ensure that we have sufficient stock to satisfy all customers.
“We have sufficient stock at the moment to satisfy our current demand. Olive oil is fine for now.”
Business Insider reported on April 29, 2022 that Woolies and Pick n Pay were restricting online sales of sunflower oil, although neither commented at the time. This week I checked Pick n Pay’s website and it allowed me to select any quantity I wanted (I stopped at 26, at R89.99 per two litre bottle).
“We are pleased that we have no restrictions on any products at the moment. We have seen price inflation in some basic food items such as cooking oil, due to an increase in raw ingredients or input costs,” said a spokesperson for the retailer. “We work very hard to offset the impact on our customers and will always try to absorb the increase to help keep prices stable. We have a great record in keeping prices low and over the past year, kept our internal inflation down at 2.9%.”
That’s all just on the home front; restaurants are feeling it too, and it’s having an impact on profit margins and bottom lines.
“We’ve increased prices in line with inflation, as we do every year, but this percentage increase may need to be re-looked at if these costs continue to rise,” said Matt Manning of Cape Town central restaurant Grub & Vine. “To give you an example, sunflower oil was R400 a drum – it’s now costing us R895 a drum. Up until now, we have buffered most of the impact and have also been clever about our menu in terms of keeping it small and seasonal – but we will likely have to adjust prices soon, especially as this scenario looks set to continue.”
Mexican-style Tortuga Loca opened in Muizenberg eight months ago and owner Georgina Mccloughan said prices of most food items have increased since then, notably oil, fish, vegetables and cheese. “We expect increases in products that require oil to manufacture, like nachos,” said Mccloughan.
“We remain committed to buying good quality ingredients and using only free range chicken and eggs. We have negotiated with suppliers and/or changed suppliers to keep the rising costs in check.
“We have not changed the menu to reduce the impact of the increased oil prices – yet – but this is certainly something we would consider if there are restrictions and the prices continue to escalate.
“Restaurants in Europe seem to have been impacted more than we have to date, as oil sales are already being limited in many countries. Ukraine’s decreased production will lead to a world–wide shortage for quite some time.”
Putting prices up going into winter is not something Mccloughan wants to do, as she feels it will upset regulars and deter repeat visits. “We are going to try and absorb the price increases for as long as possible,” she said.”We are also investigating recipes that require less oil and looking at alternative cooking methods like air-frying.”
Prices have definitely skyrocketed, agreed Manning. “For us, we have been hardest hit by the rising cost of sunflower oil – but in general, with rising inflation and fuel costs, the price of everything has been affected, so we have seen an increase in all foodstuffs across the board.”
This has resulted in a shift in cost/profit margins, but Manning hasn’t adjusted his menu or prices thus far. “But I am definitely keeping a very tight rein on orders to ensure minimal wastage and optimal use of our pantry,” he said.
Tracy-Leigh Gaag of Four & Twenty (Wynberg and Constantia Uitsig) says they have increased prices in a few areas. “In general, customers have not directly communicated any unhappiness about our recent price increases,” she said. “There have been the odd couple of regular customers that have made comments like ‘well, why is the size of the cheesecake still the same, but you’re charging me more for it?’… of course there will be comments like these.”
Gaag keeps a few accounts with similar suppliers offering similar products so she can do price comparisons to make sure she’s getting the best price possible. “We find it is always good to do this as our suppliers want our business and are mostly happy to negotiate to ensure they get the business over their competitor. This takes a lot of work and many hours spent on doing this – you almost have to employ a whole person to do this on a daily basis.”
Nuts, oil, bacon, eggs and trout are the items Gaag said have gone up the most. She added, however, that she is never tempted to purchase cheaper/inferior quality products, and remains true to the high standards at her restaurants. “This means that we do have to increase our prices and for now I think we are still in an acceptable price range. Not for much longer though. This is a scary thought.
“If we don’t increase as our supplier prices increase, we could stand the risk of losing the business completely.”
Fish and chips and burger joints will have more of a challenge in the oil restrictions/price increases, commented Gaag.
Over to David van Rensburg at The Seaboard in Sea Point, who weighed in for last week’s story as well. Since he trades in fish and chips, and more recently – as in this week – a burger joint next door, his oil experience is relevant. Twenty litres of good quality sunflower oil has gone up from R430 in 2021 to touching on R800 now. “This is pushing the price to R6-7 every time we fry a portion of fish or chips. Obviously this can’t be absorbed forever so I do see prices going up over the next few months,” he said. “Between load shedding and these increases we are taking a beating of note.”
Along with oil doubling in a year, Van Rensburg said meat and packaging have gone up by around 20%, and soft drinks have gone up “considerably”. Vegetables on the other hand have been consistent, except for – what are the odds? – potatoes.
Sea Point-based chef Tamsyn Wells runs a small business called Fude Forever, doing catering, events, and yummy meals for people like me who sometimes don’t want to cook but really just enjoy her dishes so much that they (and by they I mean I) will drive a one-hour round trip to get them whenever possible. It’s been close to two years now and I’ve hardly had the same thing twice. Deliciousness has been consistent.
“I specially tailor the menus now to include less expensive proteins and use them only here and there as a treat,” said Wells. “For example, Norwegian salmon has had a drastic increase. I’m also adding more veg options, and having a meat-free day when I am able. I look for specials and discounts on products at all times but I am lucky as a caterer to be able to do this and alter my menus to suit; the restaurants known for their dishes have to continue selling them unless they change their theme.”
Wells has decreased deep fried options (and sadly I think it’s going to be my favourite prawn chips too), and replaced with coconut oil and olive if possible.
“I have increased prices slowly over the past six months; I was not able to continue if I didn’t as everything from packaging to petrol to the ingredients have gone up. I think the customers are buying prepared foods a bit less again to save and cook themselves at home.”
Menus will have to be rethought and restructured to maintain cost effectiveness and affordability for singles and families, said Wells. “It is still a saving of sorts as you do not need to drive, shop, cook in the oven with electricity, wash up after etc, so buying ready made meals is still a very big help for everyone with busy lives, kids and who have jobs with long hours.”
How’s that air fryer looking now? DM/TGIFood
Follow Bianca Coleman on Instagram @biancaleecoleman.
The writer supports The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response, non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.