Anyone missing Laura the Cookie Lady’s shop in Lititz or pining for the lunch combo at Ric’s Bread in downtown Lancaster could blame the losses on last summer’s surge in building material costs and the supply chain woes that wreaked havoc on the construction industry.
Changes for the Cookie Lady and Ric’s are just two of the more obvious ripple effects from Clark Associates’ decision to close Hometown Provisions, its local food and restaurants delivery service. The company had plans to expand its Pequea Township warehouse to keep Hometown running, but with construction costs surging and the project’s timeline getting longer, Clark made a “tough decision” that left hundreds of restaurants, cafeterias and concession stands scrambling to find the supplies they need to keep operating.
“That was kind of where it started to decline for us, for sure,” said Laura Merkel, owner of her namesake cookie shop, when she learned in January about the imminent end of Hometown Provisions. “My mood pretty much changed at that point because it was like, ‘Now what am I going to do?’”
The dilemma illustrates how pandemic-inspired disruptions still ripple through a food service industry that continues to grapple with labor shortages. Some local operators who survived the blunt impact of forced closures early in the pandemic are finding that the accumulation of recent disruptions – inflation, avian flu, and the war in Ukraine — left them ill-equipped to manage without a local delivery service that has proven to be irreplaceable.
Hometown Provisions would drop off any size order for Merkel’s Lititz bake shop, which was a December 2020 expansion of the original Ephrata shop that opened in 2018. After the service ended in early February, Merkel found herself running to grocery stores for supplies, an effort that lasted until the end of April when she decided to close the shop.
“Hometown Provisions worked it out with me where they would just deliver it, whatever the minimum was. It didn’t matter,” Merkel said. “I scrambled to try to find a replacement, and basically nobody got back to me.”
The owners of Ric’s Bread, Michele and Mike Stauffer, were in a similar situation when Hometown Provisions stopped delivering the meat, cheese and soup ingredients that formed the basis of the lunch menu they offered at their wholesale and retail bakery. After months of buying supplies themselves at grocery stores, they ended the lunch service they said had also suffered because many people who used to work downtown still haven’t returned to their offices.
“It’s a shame to put so much of your life into a business and something that you have no control over turns everything around,” said Michele Stauffer. “It’s almost like after all those years of hard work, it just went down the tubes.”
A business decision
Hometown Provisions delivered more than 6,000 products from its warehouse at 201 Kendig Road. Created in 2005 with the merger of Mellinger Foods and Richard P. Rote & Sons, Hometown Provisions was bought in 2017 by Clark Associates, the giant East Lampeter Township-based supplier of restaurant equipment and supplies that operates The Restaurant Store and the Webstaurant, as well as numerous restaurant supply brands.
Under Clark Associates, Hometown Provisions offered delivery to restaurants, pizza shops, schools and market stands within a 1 1/2-hour radius of Lancaster. It experienced steady growth and actually had its best year last year, according to Gene Clark, the company’s CEO who traced the closure of the service to the unexpectedly fast growth of an e-commerce food delivery business that was housed in the same building.
With the perishable food delivery service registering more than 100% annual growth, Clark Associates made plans to expand the 35,000-square-foot building that served as both its shipping warehouse and the distribution center for the local deliveries made by Hometown Provisions.
But as work was set to begin last summer on the construction of much-needed extra space, supply chain issues and worker shortages that roiled the national economy caused Clark Associates’ construction costs to surge as delays mounted, Clark explained.
“It just became so much more expensive, and also the construction timeline was stretching out longer and longer,” Clark said.
As the e-commerce food delivery service continued to grow and require more space, Clark said it became clear that the space to accommodate that segment of the market had to come from Hometown Provisions.
“In some ways the decision was made for us,” Clark said. “Something had to give because we ran out of time to get sufficient facility to run both of these business units concurrently. That’s what led to the tough decision in which we basically had to pick one business unit and run with it.”
In January, Clark Associates told customers the service would end in early February and offered customers some suggestions for alternate suppliers, Clark said. Most of the less than 100 employees of Hometown Provisions were assigned to other Clark Associates’ businesses, delivery trucks were redeployed, the Hometown Provisions brand ceased to exist, and its former website — hometownprovisions.net — began directing customers to its Restaurant Store where nonperishable items can be picked up.
“It’s challenging and you certainly wonder, ‘Did we do the right thing?’ But these times are causing businesses to make a lot of tough decisions. They’re just tough decisions,” Clark said. “It is a shame that we had to do it. … People really loved Hometown.”
Hard to replace
Competing in an industry that includes large food delivery companies such as U.S. Foods and Sysco, Hometown Provisions offered an attractive local alternative that especially appealed to many small restaurants and market stands because it allowed sales of individual items and didn’t have a minimum order.
“I preferred using Hometown, I preferred using a local company that was based here in Lancaster County,” said Jim Rutolo, an owner of Gracie’s on West Main in Leola who says he’s still feeling the loss of the service company he had so completely come to rely on over the past seven years.
“We’re three months out and I still don’t have the suppliers lined up that are giving me consistent product at consistent pricing with consistent service,” said Rutolo, who owns the restaurant with Mariella “Gracie” Volker.
Unlike some smaller shops and cafes, Rutolo said he can easily meet the minimum order required by larger companies but has struggled to find suitable alternatives to products offered by Hometown Provisions. In many cases, Rutolo is still using products from Clark Associates, but instead of waiting for a delivery truck, he has to make a trip to The Restaurant Store near Smoketown.
“Now I have to get an employee to go, or Gracie and I have to spend an hour or two a week running to The Restaurant Store and picking product up that we were getting delivered,” said Rutolo, who recently made the trip to get latex gloves, to-go containers, napkins, sauces and syrups for coffee drinks. “It messes up your whole day.”
Rutolo said it is much too expensive for him to pay freight shipping costs for perishables shipped from the Clark Associates business that took over the Hometown Provisions space in Pequea Township.
Neal Mease, secretary of the Ephrata War Memorial Association and co-chair of its concession stand, said it was a “shock” when Hometown Provisions announced the end of the delivery service that supported the concession stand’s menu of burgers, fries, hot dogs, chicken tenders and sandwiches.
“The remaining suppliers that service the area are almost all large companies that have much higher minimum requirements that need to be met to get a delivery,” he said. “(And) the larger companies don’t allow smaller customers to buy most items in less than a full case amount.”
Mease said some of the food for the concession stand is now bought directly from companies that had previously sold through Hometown Provisions. Other products are purchased through Performance Food Service, a national food service supplier. Concession stand prices will likely rise as a result, he said.
Hometown Provisions was the main supplier for Coffee Co., which has four Lancaster County locations. Co-owner John Smucker said he’s had to hustle to find someone to replace the service, and discovered that there was no one quite like it.
“We are now using three or four different vendors to purchase the product that we were able to purchase in the past from just a single supplier,” he said.
Although it has caused some upheaval for his own business, Smucker says he can “understand why” Clark Associates made the decision to end Hometown Provisions.
Rutolo, the Gracie’s on West Main co-owner, says that while he also understands the reasoning behind Clark Associates’ decision, it still doesn’t make sense to him.
“If they weren’t making money and they were failing, I’d get it. (But) I know they were making money. I know they had their best year ever,” he said. “If you have two successful businesses, why close one?”