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Rice isn’t nice, if it’s costly and hard to find

Post by News Tribune Staff on April 24, 2008 at 3:30 pm | No Comments »
April 24, 2008 3:30 pm

While rising rice prices make many people unhappy, Scoring bags of rice is something to smile about these days.

Rising prices and limited availability of rice are affecting South Sound restaurants.

Cash and Carry, a wholesale warehouse store where many restaurants purchase bulk ingredients like rice, starting limiting rice purchases to two 50-pound bags per customer this week.

"We’re allocating rice right now – the same as Costco and everyone around me has been doing" Randy Drake, manager of the warehouse store on Tacoma Mall Boulevard. "We’re lucky if you can get it. I had 50 bags this morning and they were sold out in 10 minutes."

Drake said the price of Cash and Carry’s 50-pound bags of long-grain California rice has risen to $18 from $15 in three weeks.

In August 2007, Galanga Thai restaurant in downtown Tacoma paid $19 per 50-pound bag of Thai Jasmine rice from King’s Oriental Foods, a Seattle distributor, owner Ted Kenney said. The same bag rose to $23 on March $27, $26 on April 3 and $30 on April 10.

"The rising prices have caused my wife to shop around some, hoping to find a better price," Kenney said. "Today we are getting an order. We don’t know what the price will be."

Rice is the backbone of many Asian cuisines. Many entrees are served on rice, and rice generally accompanies entrees as a side dish. Café Hawaii in Parkland specializes in plate lunches, built around "two good scoops of rice," said owner Edgar Taranada. Taranada said he serves 300 pounds of rice per week.

"I’ve got a lot of problems getting it," said Taranada, who buys rice at Cash and Carry. "I knew three or four weeks ago that we’d get to this point. Now it’s to the point where you have to be [at the store] at 7 a.m. or you’re not going to get rice."

Taranada wondered what he’s going to do "because Hawaiians love rice, Samoans love rice, Polynesians love rice. If it gets worse than this, I’m going to have to jack my prices up."

Taranada joked about a more drastic plan.

"It’s getting to the point where I’m going to have to make substitutes," he said. "I’m going to have to ask customers of they want mashed potatoes or dinner rolls instead of rice."

Peter Choe, owner of Chin’s Teriyaki in downtown Tacoma, said he goes through one 50-pound bag of short-grain California rice per day. He said he might consider raising his prices but draws the line at reducing portion sizes. Purchased for lunch Thursday, a $5.99 chicken teriyaki entrée came with 8 ounces of meat and 13 ounces of rice.

"No, no, no – same portion," Choe said. "We don’t want to raise problems."

"For Asian people, you have to have rice. It’s the same as potatoes and bread for white people," said Jennifer Chang, chef/owner of Hong Sheng Fung Chinese restaurant on South Tacoma Way.

Chang serves a mix of short-grain California rice and long-grain Thai Jasmine rice. She said she’s switching from long-grain Thai Jasmine rice ($32.50 for 50 pounds) to California-grown long-grain rice ($19.95 for 50 pounds).

"If I charge for a little small cup, people will get mad at me," Chang said. "But it’s expensive. I might have to start charging."

Indochine Asian Dining Lounge in downtown Tacoma charges $1.50 for a small side order of rice. Co-owner Russell Brunton said the cost of the restaurant’s long-grain Thai Jasmine rice has doubled to $40 from $20 in recent months.

"I got a call yesterday from somebody really angry that we charge for rice," Brunton said. "I think that’s pretty unfair because is rice is something that there is value to and there is a cost to us to store it and cook it."

Waste is another cost factor. While Taranada said 80 percent of Café Hawaii’s customers eat all of their rice, other restaurants say uneaten rice creates a sticky situation.

"There’s quite a bit of waste," Brunton said. "People consider white rice a cheap ingredient."

Kenney said it’s "difficult to predict how much rice people are going to eat. We try to tailor it. If it’s a table of what looks like light eaters, we’re not going to bring out as much as if it was for a table of four big guys."

Rising prices, Kenney said, require tighter controls.

"Not ‘over-ricing’ customers, resulting in thrown-away rice, is definitely something we talk to our servers about," Kenny said. "After reviewing these prices, I think we’ll have to mention it again tonight. Our dog can only eat so much (left-over) rice."

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