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‘Blown away’ by inflation: How Sonoma County residents are coping with historically high prices

Tempers flared and car horns blared at the Costco gas station in south Santa Rosa. A line of cars waiting to fill up at the members-only fueling station late in the afternoon had backed up, and was now blocking traffic at the entrance to the shopping center.

Swooping to the rescue, a gesticulating, yellow-vested Costco employee instructed motorists to “Please move forward!” Order was soon restored.

Even with the wait of 10 to 15 minutes, “it’s still worth coming here,” said Alex Corcoran, pointing to the $6.19 price for a gallon of unleaded — 60 cents per gallon cheaper than at the Chevron just up Santa Rosa Avenue.

Gary Deeths prefers to gas up in the morning, when the line is half as long, he said. “But I was running late today.” Asked how he felt about the historically high gas prices, he shrugged and channeled Tony Soprano:

“What are you gonna do? I need gas.”

His car took $90 to fill. That’s not bad, said an observer, laboring to be optimistic. Deeths disagreed.

“It’s bad.”

That was the consensus among a cross section of Sonoma County consumers and business owners who spoke to the Press Democrat in the wake of recent reports that inflation is accelerating, not slowing down.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced June 10 that the country’s rate of inflation reached 8.6% in May, its highest level since December 1981. That stratospheric number — driven largely by a 48% uptick in gas prices — threw a wet blanket on hopes that inflation had peaked in April, prompting the Federal Reserve on Wednesday to raise interest rates by a whopping 0.75% — its largest increase in nearly three decades — in hopes of cooling off the economy.

That grim news jibed with the pain people are feeling at the gas pump, the grocery store and in countless other aspects of their daily lives, forcing them to scrimp, cut corners and otherwise adjust to a harsh new fiscal reality.

How do they do it?’

To save on fuel, Deeths started riding his bike to work a couple times a week, a 26-mile round trip from Windsor. “Takes about an hour each way,” he said. “It’s a great workout.”

Describing the price of gas as “horrible,” Maria Cruz of Windsor reported that she and her husband are now eating out less. Such austerity measures can have a cascading effect.

Uneven business, runaway food prices and scarce labor have turned the screws on area restaurants, as evidenced by the abrupt closure last month of two Mary’s Pizza Shack locations.

“When the price of chicken or lettuce doubles, we can’t just double the prices on the menu,” said Sonu Chandi, president and founder of Chandi Hospitality Group, which owns Beer Baron in downtown Santa Rosa, and Mountain Mike’s Pizza on Cleveland Ave.

The result is that “our bottom line is shrinking,” said Chandi, who describes his business as “more of a franchise and real estate development company. If I was just owning and operating a single restaurant, it would be a very challenging time to survive.”

Maureen Keaveny no longer buys red meat. “I look at the price of beef and I’m like, ‘Wow!’” she said Wednesday while pushing a cart through one of the canyon-like aisles at FoodMaxx, a discount supermarket in Rohnert Park.

A nurse at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, Keaveny reports that she’s shopping “more intentionally,” picking up more generic brands and, if a staple is on sale, buying more in bulk, an admission which prompted her to say: “Now I sound like my mother.”

Keaveny has a cushion. She’s going to be fine. “My kids are gown and out of the house,” she said. “I’m just taking care of me.”

The folks her heart goes out to, she said, are the nurses aides, cafeteria workers and others at the hospital who don’t make as much. “And they have kids, and I’m just thinking ‘Oh my God, how do they do it?’”

Working families hardest hit

Indeed, the double whammy of sky-high gas prices alongside broader inflation is landing hardest on the working class. Inflation is like a “regressive tax that hits lower middle income families harder than higher income families,” said Robert Eyler, an economics professor at Sonoma State University.

Even during periods of high inflation, many homeowners have seen the prices of their houses go up, noted Eyler. That gives them “a way of hedging against inflation” that’s unavailable to those who don’t own homes.

The cost of renting, meanwhile, jumped 12.9% in Sonoma County in 2021. Rents in Santa Rosa were up 12.6%, while rising 14.5% in Petaluma.

There is this ray of light from the construction industry: the price of lumber has fallen by half since March.

“Lumber’s not the problem right now,” said Tom Snyder, whose company specializes in building custom homes in Sonoma County. “Everything else is.”

The 4-inch PVC sewer pipe that cost Snyder $2.17 a foot in 2020 now goes for over $6 a foot. A roll of copper wire used by electricians to wire a house that went for $70 in 2020 now costs $150.

Snyder’s labor costs are climbing. “Guys just can’t afford food and fuel,” he said. On invoices submitted by subcontractors, he’s noticing line items he’s never seen before.

In the past, he said, “if your tile guy had to go the showroom or warehouse and pick up all the tile for a job, he wasn’t gonna charge you for the fuel to go get that stuff. They didn’t worry about it. It was part of the job.”

Now, it gets tacked on to the invoice.

In addition to scrambling for laborers, builders are also at the mercy of fickle and sluggish supply chains that can cause “months and months of delays on projects,” noted Lisa Wittke Schaffner, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange. She knows whereof she speaks. Around the time she took the job, last January, she launched a remodel of her Healdsburg home that was supposed to take two months. It took seven.

Exorbitant fuel, chauffeur shortage

To help offset galloping costs of gas and diesel, Petaluma-based Pure Luxury Travel will soon tack on a 6% surcharge for customers.

The price of fuel to run the company’s 90-vehicle fleet “is killing us,” said co-owner Jennifer Buffo. And the rising cost of oil has pushed up the price of all petroleum-based products — including brakes, motors, and tires. “In our industry, everything costs more when gas goes up,” lamented co-owner Gary Buffo.

Another brake on their business is a chauffeur shortage. Since the pandemic eased its grip on the area, demand for Pure Luxury’s services has spiked. “If we had the employees, I could have 50 more vehicles running a day,” said Jennifer — who took pains to point out the upcoming fuel surcharge will be temporary.

“When it gets close to $4 a gallon, we’re going to take it away.”

When might that be?

“Most economists right now think that the current inflation is going to stick around for a little while,” said Eyler of Sonoma State. “It will probably be with us, at relatively high levels, into early 2023.”

Egg prices up 240%

From the wildfires of 2017 to the following year’s flooding to more fires and a pandemic, followed by inflation, “all our disasters are blending together,” said David Goodman, CEO of the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which expects to distribute $60 million worth of groceries to the needy this year.

As the North Bay slowly emerged from the grip of COVID-19, demand for the food bank’s services started to ebb, said Goodman. “But when all this inflation started, it moved right back up.”

Inflation has dramatically increased need for the nonprofit’s services — now at 169% of pre-pandemic times, said Goodman — even as it has made those services much more expensive.

While it may be a grape capital, Sonoma County isn’t a big producer of food. So that sustenance needs to be trucked in. “Every time we bring in food, there’s a surcharge for the fuel, a surcharge for the labor of driving the truck,” said Goodman. “Everything goes up.”

In 2021, the food bank paid 83 cents for a dozen eggs. That same dozen eggs now costs $2.82, a 240% increase. A box of cereal has increased 22%. A pound of chicken is up over 100%. Produce is up a nickel a pound, from 15 cents to 20, which doesn’t sound very dramatic, until one considers that the food bank will buy 9.6 million pounds of produce this year, meaning it must shell out a half-million dollars extra for fruits and vegetables.

Overall, the nonprofit will see its food costs go up 49% this year.

Another difference from pre-pandemic times, said Goodman: “We are now helping a lot of people who are not poor people,” or at least who don’t self-describe as such — folks with good jobs and two cars who didn’t earn quite enough to put much in their savings. When some reversal of fortune occurs, “there’s no elasticity in their bank account.”

Tapping inner tightwad

Cyndi Shanklin lost her husband a year and a half ago. “So I’m on a fixed income now,” she explained on her way out of the Grocery Outlet in Santa Rosa. “It’s been really challenging. I’m just feeding myself, but I’m blown away at what it’s costing me.”

Behind her, a courteous cashier offered to lift a bag into the cart of an elderly customer.

“Nothing’s too heavy for me,” declared the 86-year-old woman, taking hold of the bag herself. “I just retired from doing this myself a year and a half ago.”

“You have no idea,” that woman replied, when asked if she was feeling the pinch of inflation. (She also informed a reporter that she does not give her name to strangers.)

Where she once spent $25 on a week’s worth of groceries for herself, she’d just written a check for $40. “For one shopping trip!”

Outside the store, Tim Reed was loading groceries into the pannier of his 3-wheeled e-bike. Yes, inflation was outstripping his pension and Social Security, allowed the 68-year-old. Yes, he’d canceled “a couple trips to Europe” in recent years — a concession to both the economy and the coronavirus.

But Reed, a former computer technician, isn’t sweating it. “I’ve always been really good at living on next to nothing. I get a month’s worth of money, spend it in 27 days, and for 4 days, I spend nothing,” he said.

“I’m fundamentally a cheap son of a bitch,” added Reed. When times are tough, “all I have to do is turn that on.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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