With Americans stocking up on affordable, shelf-stable foods, pasta has become a mainstay of the quarantine pantry—when customers can find any. Because of a considerable jump in demand, pasta companies have been reporting roughly 30 percent increases in the volume they have to produce to keep grocery stores supplied. “Dry pasta [production] had been flat for the past number of years, and it has significantly increased since the pandemic began,” said Carl Zuanelli, chairman of the National Pasta Association and CEO of Nuovo Pasta. “We really started to see panic buying toward the end of February, beginning of March.”
But why, in at least some places, are pasta shelves still bereft of product? It’s not like we’re importing it from coronavirus-scarred Italy. The vast majority of pasta consumed in the U.S. is produced domestically, including from Italian brands like Barilla. The angel hair or penne on your plate originally came from durum wheat grown on a farm likely located in North Dakota or Montana, where the hot, arid days and cool nights allow the amber-colored crop to thrive. After the harvest, millers grind the durum to produce coarse semolina flour, which factories can then mix with water and extrude to make pasta. With the ongoing surge in demand, every part of the process has had to shift into a higher gear.
Many farms and mills already had reserves of durum that they could draw on during the initial weeks of the coronavirus crisis, according to James Meyer, CEO of the flour producer Italgrani. Yet the St. Louis company, which is the largest semolina and durum miller in North America, still had to kick up production. Italgrani produces flour to order, so at the beginning of each week it determines how many days the mill should run to fulfill orders from pasta factories. In normal times, the mill runs 24 hours a day, five days a week. Italgrani bumped up to 24/7 in April.
During the initial spike, Meyer feared that transportation could be an issue. Italgrani typically has to determine the right number of food-grade rail cars that can accommodate the amount of flour it’s shipping. Most years it reserves fewer cars during the spring and summer, when there’s usually a decline in pasta consumption. It had to act quickly to increase the size of its leased rail car fleet, though it was able to do so in time before capacity became a problem. The company was also in a good position because Class I railroads have been carrying fewer items for struggling industries like oil and auto manufacturing, freeing up more capacity for goods like wheat and flour. “Demand is up. We’ve been grinding more and shipping that to our customers,” says Meyer. “Transit times for both the raw materials coming to us and for the finished product going to our customers have been very good.”
At the manufacturing level, where the semolina flour becomes pasta, employees have been working overtime and taking on more shifts. “We generally run at 80 percent of capacity [at the factory]. We’re now at 105 percent of capacity,” said Linda Schalles, director of special operations for the Philadelphia Macaroni Company, which recently became America’s largest privately owned pasta manufacturer after acquiring Zerega Pasta. “We’re working 24/7.”
In February, before the U.S. experienced a major outbreak, the Philadelphia Macaroni Company’s machine-maker warned the company that pasta was flying off the shelves in Italy as the coronavirus wrought havoc. Executives worked to quickly secure masks, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, and other supplies that would allow its factories to keep operating. The company’s plants also began shifting production processes to focus on more popular generic pasta shapes like elbow macaroni and spaghetti, rather than on specialty products like tricolor rotini. “We’ve had to put some of those customers [for specialty pastas] off because we have to fill demand for the broadest products that are in the middle of the aisle. We fill up those shelves,” Schalles said.
According to Schalles, the biggest bottleneck the company has been facing is hiring enough workers and getting them onto the production floor. The pasta-making industry usually has high turnover rates, which Schalles attributes to the uncomfortably hot working conditions caused by the machines that dry the product, and its need for more workers has only grown during the pandemic. The company recently bought out large digital billboards with hiring ads at major intersections in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and other cities where its factories are located. It has also been handing out business cards to line workers in the hopes that they’ll use them to recruit friends. The procedures that the Philadelphia Macaroni Company has put in place to screen people for the virus, which includes daily temperature checks and health surveys, also create a chokepoint in terms of getting employees to their workstations. Zuanelli notes that ramping up production in this respect has been slightly easier for companies like his that have become increasingly reliant on automation for tasks like flour mixing and packaging. The machines just have to run for a longer amount of time and undergo modifications to increase the yield.
Another obstacle that factories are running into is packaging. Some manufacturers that usually sell pasta in bulk to the service industry have been pivoting to retail, where most of the demand has been moving. But the pasta has to be repackaged into smaller containers, the materials for which can be tough to find. “One company may be able to shift their product into consumer packs, but then there’s concerns with the purchasing of the plastics, the corrugated boxes, and the unit cardboard boxes. That poses a challenge [to source],” says Zuanelli.
For now, companies are fairly confident they’ll be able to provide for the home-cooked pasta renaissance long-term. Pasta executives are worried, though, that the coronavirus itself could endanger the workforce and incapacitate the supply chain, similar to what the meat industry is experiencing. Zuanelli notes he hasn’t heard of positive cases at pasta manufacturing facilities thus far, which he attributes to the fact that it takes fewer people to produce a pound of pasta compared with other foods. Yet trying to ensure that the illness doesn’t infiltrate the facilities while also increasing production volume is no easy feat. “It would be one thing if it was just a turn of a light switch to get more supply in the market,” Zuanelli says. “But we’re trying to do so with one hand tied behind our back, trying to ramp up workplace protocols to protect our employees’ safety. That’s the principal issue we’ve all had to grapple with.”