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Staff Shortages, Supply Chain Issues.

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Fast food chains dealt with a labor shortage and supply chain constraints in 2021.
Workers were pushed to the limit with understaffing and angry customers.
Drive-thrus and mobile orders were up, and they gave workers new problems to handle.

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2021 was another difficult year for fast food. Demand came rushing back after the unusual trends of 2020, but managing supply issues and staffing were bigger challenges this year. 

Here are a few of the debacles that made up the year in fast food.

Chipotle’s Boorito promotion

Chipotle orders left at the end of the night.

Anonymous

Several Chipotle workers told Insider that they were worried ahead of Chipotle’s annual Halloween Boorito promotion, fearing that their understaffed stores wouldn’t be able to handle the influx of digital orders.

These concerns all played out, workers told Insider.  “It was as bad as I thought it was going to be,” a worker in Ohio said. Some Chipotle workers in New York City walked off the job on Halloween in protest during the event to demand better working conditions.

The Chipotle app also went down temporarily, though Chipotle says the issues were not widespread.

Starbucks’ major supply snags

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Starbucks put at least 25 items, including key drink ingredients, on “temporary hold” in June, according to an internal memo viewed by Insider. The list included popular items like hazelnut syrup, toffee nut syrup, chai tea bags, green iced tea, and other products. 

Some stores also displayed signs that say “we are currently experiencing temporary outages of some of our food and beverage items.” These signs were officially distributed from Starbucks corporate to individual stores, the spokesperson confirmed.

The company said these were “temporary supply shortages” that varied by market.

Drive-thru popularity led to long waits and traffic problems

Photo by Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post

Drive-thru wait times keep getting longer, with no end in sight. Customers don’t seem to mind, but municipal officials and nearby businesses often object to the long lines, which can block traffic and cause safety hazards. Chick-fil-A in particular has been a traffic offender, leading to lawsuits from nearby businesses and local governments.

Meanwhile, former CEO Dan Cathy estimates that as many as 30% of customers drive away from Chick-fil-A because of long lines. The chicken chain does have longer than average wait times at nearly nine minutes, the longest out of 10 major chains surveyed.

Workers are facing harassment and abuse on the job

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Working in food service has always been difficult, but many workers say the additional abuse and mistreatment from customers this year has made it unbearable.

Well over half of workers, 62%, reported receiving emotional abuse and disrespect from customers, and 49% reported abuse from managers, according to a Black Box Intelligence survey of 4,700 former, current, and hopeful restaurant workers.

“People think it’s perfectly okay to be intolerant, demand things, and just be unreasonable,” a Taco Bell worker who just quit after 20 years told Insider.

The “handful [of customers] that you get each day who will berate or abuse you can take a drastic toll on your mental well-being,” a Louisiana Starbucks barista told Insider in May.

No one has enough workers

McDonald’s is turning to younger workers.

HotLunchPam/Reddit

The entire industry is understaffed as chains have difficulty recruiting and retaining workers, many of whom are leaving because of the abuse described earlier.

Lower staffing levels have thrown the fast-food world into chaos. Some restaurants, like this Oregon McDonald’s, are turning to younger workers to fill in missing pieces of their labor forces. Almost 40% of Popeyes’ more than 3,400 US restaurants have closed their dining rooms early to cope with a labor shortage, CEO of parent company Restaurant Brands International Jose Cil said in a third-quarter earnings call.

In other cases, restaurants simply can’t handle the increased volume of digital orders with skeleton crews, workers pushed to their breaking points walk off the job.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

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