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Sugar shortage hits Greater Victoria grocery stores, bakers amid labour dispute at refinery

Sugar supplies are running low on grocery-store shelves and in bakeries amid a strike at Rogers Sugar in Vancouver

Cindy Wong couldn’t believe her luck Tuesday morning when she found three one-kilogram bags of white sugar at the Red Barn Market on Oak Bay Avenue.

“Oh my gosh, I’m so glad. I’m so lucky,” she said with a smile. “It’s a gold mine. Even though it’s a little more expensive, I’m taking it.”

With a supply crunch caused by an eight-week strike at Rogers Sugar refinery in Vancouver, Wong had been running all over town to find sugar for her Christmas baking.

“This morning, I went to Country Grocer on Royal Oak. That was the first place I hit. Then I went to London Drugs on Quadra. Nothing. Thrifty Foods on Quadra. Nothing. It’s all gone. So then I went to Fairway on Shelbourne. Nothing. I was tempted to buy really expensive cane sugar, but it’s not the same as white sugar,”said Wong, who had also called Costco.

Signs on the sugar shelf at Red Barn said “temporarily out of stock,” but an employee had just found 10 one-kilogram bags of white sugar.

“That’s the last one for a while,” he said, joking that he should have called security.

Close to 140 workers have been off the job at Rogers Sugar since Sept. 28 in a dispute over wages, benefits and the company’s proposal to increase refinery operations to 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Rogers Sugar continues to operate at a reduced level and the company says it’s using its other facilities to supply customers in Western Canada. The effect of the strike is being felt across Western Canada, but the most severe supply problems appear to be in B.C.

Susannah Bryan, owner of Ruth & Dean Luncheonette and Bakery on Estevan Avenue, said her bakers have had to adjust recipes and change to other sugars that have not yet run out.

“I’m just taking it one week at a time,” said Bryan. “Eventually, when it’s dire, we’ll just have to cut out certain things and dramatically adjust recipes. I imagine it will affect our bottom line as well. About one-third of our revenue stream comes from our baked goods. We just won’t be able to produce a lot of them.”

The bakery uses about 320 to 400 kilograms of sugar a month and has a few different suppliers.

“We use a large baking supplier, who still has some in stock. We use a specialty supplier, who still has a limited amount of stores. I also buy from different retail suppliers, which are more expensive,” she said.

The bakery is already out of icing sugar and brown sugar, forcing it to use demerara sugar, which has a stronger molasses flavour, instead of best brown or golden brown sugar, said Bryan.

“We’re concerned for sure, but I feel by inflating public alarm over it, we’ll end up with the toilet-paper situation like in 2020. People are panic-purchasing so people like myself won’t be able to get it,” said Bryan. “I don’t want to remark on it too much because I think that would be detrimental to people whose livelihoods depend on it.”

Russ Benwell, owner of the Red Barn Market, said the grocery store is scrambling to put regular two-kilogram white sugar, one-kilogram brown sugar and demerara on its shelves. “So we are definitely feeling it there,” he said.”

But the longer-term issue for the locally owned grocery store is the smokehouse where they make a lot of products using sugar, said Benwell.

“In our double-smoked bacon, a couple of our recipes call for demerara sugar and that is a concern for us,” he said.

The market is trying to source the sugar from larger national suppliers “so we can create our bacon to put into our products,” said Benwell, whose store has seen an influx of buyers who normally shop elsewhere.

“I wouldn’t say it’s panic buying but people are hoping to do their Christmas baking or maybe feed the hummingbirds and they are not able to find sugar.”

Front-end store manager Barb Zigman said customers have been understanding, since most know that Rogers Sugar is on strike.

“To me, it’s a vision of the pandemic again or that egg run during the atmospheric river. When the fields in Abbotsford were flooded, people here went crazy for eggs. But all our eggs come from up-Island so we were never out of eggs,” said Zigman. “People started panicking but I thought: ‘What are you guys going to do with all the eggs. Eggs don’t freeze’.”

For her part, Wong wasn’t interested in stocking up on large amounts of sugar. “I want to save some for other people,” she said, as she headed home to make chocolate chip oatmeal cookies.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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