Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Every San Francisco Diner Should Read This:

The Check Republic [from 7x7]

And then shut up whining about the cost of eating out. Please.

PS - The reason I was pleased to be alerted to this article is because it ties in with something I wrote to a food newsgroup about the cost of food in restaurants only last week:

"I don't get it. Why do so many people think they are entitled to cheap food? Why the obsession with thriftiness when it comes to what you eat? Does everyone buy the absolute cheapest video-game/tv/sofa/jeans/car? Some people might, but I'll bet that most people want something a little better than the cheapest when it comes to most things in life. But why not with food? This stuff goes directly into our bodies, if we spend a little more on anything, why not on something that touches us so closely and even shapes our healthiness? The cost of food is rising drastically - we have to get used to this notion that food is not cheap and appreciate that restaurants have huge over heads...."

© 2008 Sam Breach
Every San Francisco Diner Should Read This:


  • At 10/6/08 10:08, Blogger yoshi said…

    I always have a problem with people who state food shouldn't be cheap. Food should be cheap. Food along with education should be dirt cheap - throw in housing why you are at it. Ands its been delivered to us. The problem with restaurants featured in this article (and your attitude) is that they are not set up to feed 300 million people. There methods cannot sustain that amount. They can only sustain the people who have the money to pay for it. And that leaves out a the majority of the population.

  • At 10/6/08 10:09, Blogger Owen said…

    It's funny - I have never minded paying a lot for a good meal - but I expect to get value for money. And, yes, I am a cheapskate. I deal with it by not eating out all that much and saving my eating out dollars for GOOD places.

    In the case of a restaurant like Quince, where a significant amount of the extra price is in getting better ingredients, I am perfectly happy to pay. But I do not like paying a lot for a supposed improvement in the kitchen to a mediocre ingredient.

    And farmers CERTAINLY deserve to get more for their work.

    Having said all that I also think their is a certain amount of faddishness to many newer restaurants that I really don't like - sort of a 'look we are using the trendy new ingredients and telling you about them so we must be good and able to charge a lot' - and then a failure to deliver at a more core substantial quality level. I am more often disappointed than not by new restaurants I try.

  • At 10/6/08 10:10, Blogger kudzu said…

    This is a very good report on why things cost what they do. But please don't tell us not to whine about the cost of eating out when we must whine about the cost of everyday living, which is reaching a dangerous level for many, many people -- no matter what kind of car or jeans or sofa they own. Okay, we'll rephrase things and complain rathern than whinge, but the pain is obvious to lots of us and choosing a place where we can afford to eat is a sorry task.

  • At 10/6/08 10:14, Blogger Sam said…

    Hi Yoshi - thanks for commenting. I understand that I can only make a simplification in such a short post. This post is written in the context of dining out, not saving the worlds' starving which is another issue entirely. This post is not intended to be about the cost of food in general, but the cost of food when dining out, something that I understand not everyone is able to do. But those who choose to dine out need to think about the actual cost that goes into creating the dining out experience.

    I am sorry - I thought I made the context clear my using words like 'Diner', 'Eating Out' and 'restaurant overheads'.

  • At 10/6/08 12:41, Anonymous EB said…

    Sam I agree with you. It *is* comparable to clothing, cars etc. If we took in account all of the actual resources and labor (and wage of labor if it was an actual living wage and NOT developing nation/sweatshop wage) a pair of jeans would/should cost about $700. The same goes for produce and the labor that goes into our food when dining out. I also think that people need to stop griping about the healthcare surcharge that's been added to SF dining checks. Our city is based on the hospitality industry. Why shouldn't everyone be able to work for a decent wage and be able to keep themselves healthy?

  • At 10/6/08 17:06, Blogger Marco said…

    Ah, tricky subject ...

    So, in the end, I agree with Sam, but for different reasons. I think that a restaurant will in the end charge what they want, and that complaining about it is a bit pointless. Your complaint is simple: don't go if you don't like the price.

    You can't expect someone to pay $11 a pound for asparagus, ship it, work it, serve it, and charge you small money. Not going to happen. So kindly don't expect to be served that kind of experience at MickeyD prices. Or even at 15 bucks per person.

    In the end, the fact that restaurants, especially at this kind of price point, have such a short shelf life is proof enough that not a lot of people are willing to pay this kind of money for food - and they do demand some special return from the experience. And, it is also clear that when times get harder, such restaurants do go out of business in larger numbers, they need to perhaps raise prices, or people have less money, or both ... so some businesses will be priced out of the market. It was good at 50 bucks a head, but not at 75. That sort of thing.

    What I found more interesting about the post, Sam, is that we were being asked about following our ideals. Yet, here is a restaurant that is spending a fortune shipping things all over the world - at best a questionable practice. So, OK, you don't like US made pasta ... but how about Costco's italian pasta? ;)

    Do we want to encourage a business to spend money and resources to import the most obscure material, at the highest possible cost? How's that match our "local food" philosophy? That strikes me as a reasonable question to ask of ourselves.

  • At 12/6/08 09:30, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    When one compares "cheap" products, to food, one seems to be making a value judgement. Cheap products refers to shoddy, and poorly made.. when it comes to food, that would translate to foods that are unsafe and not healthy.

    Food is a necessity for life. We can not rationalize this caste system mindset. It has been not only rationalized in countries like Germany, but legally excused by the German Green party, and it's lead to extreme hunger for the poor there.

    One can not claim to care about the starving in third world countries, but excuse the same in first world countries.. it's akin to the mindsets that excused slavery.

    One can not rationalize expensive, healthy food, while turning a blind eye to declining wages, the outsourcing of jobs, and the importation of cheaper labor to displace citizen workers.. it is all intertwined.

    Common sense dictates buying locally, and eating within the seasons. Foodies should stop expecting to eat summer produce all year long, and should creatively celebrate local and seasonal produce in their recipes and expect the same at the restaurants they dine at.

    Decent human beings can not treat the subject of the price of food so cavalierly, no matter how wealthy they are.

  • At 13/6/08 08:01, Blogger Sam said…

    Thanks for the insightful comments everyone. This is a huge, vast issue, of course and not really covered very well by my silly, somewhat flippant post.

    My comment was specifically about restaurant food/eating out and was not meant to encompass third world hunger or bigger issues like how to feed the starving.

    What I think people don't realise sometimes, is the amount of work that goes into putting a plate of food on your table in a restaurant and why we should expect to pay money for that experience just like we expect to have to pay for other commodities we put the cash down for without a second thought.

    I guess because most people who dine out can also cook, they are more opinionated as to the value of food. Because we can't make jeans or build a car so easily we are more accepting about the cost of those things.

    That's what I am guessing.

  • At 13/6/08 10:37, Anonymous Hillary said…

    Nice article...and love the title! This is why I would love to go to...but am also afraid to go to...San Francisco.

  • At 13/6/08 18:28, Blogger FaustianBargain said…

    hi sam..here is the twist. when people see a can of tomato soup being heated up and have a couple of croutons thrown over it, then they cant stomach a $9 per bowl of soup. trust me..this happens. not just here, but across the pond too. all the time. there are very few kitchens that dish out 'value for money'.

    i dont want to mention names, but there is a restaurant with a couple of outlets in the bay area. the quality of produce in the san francisco joint is lightyears away from the excellent food served in berkeley. should the punters complain? *I* would.

    and *food* is cheap. what makes restaurant food expensive are the overheads. what irritates me are "swanky" restaurants serving sub par food. you know the kind of restaurants i am talking about....

    why are restaurants expensive?..it is because the cost of running a restaurant and the cost of living for those who are running it is HIGH. its not about the foodcosts. the era of restaurants is over..or it has to take a break, at least. in this economy, people wouldnt mind paying good money for excellent produce..but i think they'll "whine" about giving it to restaurants.

  • At 13/6/08 18:40, Blogger FaustianBargain said…

    i read the 7x7 article..while i do appreciate white asparagus..i cant sympathise with a chef who pays 17.50 for a pound of asparagus(thats 450gms...now calculate how much per spear?) in this economy for a product that is grown 350 miles away. that is NOT local and its not necessary. i am not saying that the final sticker price on the dish is not worth it..i am just saying that one cant expect lines forming without a little bit of whining.

    the "labour costs" is not different for prep'ing white asparagus..its the same as it is for peeling potatoes. let noone think that chefs(i dont care what others say..as far as i am concerned..if they work in a professional kitchen, they are chefs..whether they run the kitchen or not..sorry.pet peeve) who work with white asparagus get paid more than the guy who flips burgers.

    restauranteurs in san francisco must realise that there will be less tourists with the rising fuel costs...they better come up with a better strategy than including surcharges.

    like..i dont know..NOT buy 17.50 bucks per pound white asparagus.

  • At 14/6/08 07:11, Blogger Farmgirl Susan said…

    Hi Sam,
    I found this article really interesting and informative, despite the fact that I *sniff* now live so far away from San Francisco and literally cannot remember the last time I had a meal in a restaurant. Lots of things to think about in it. Thanks for posting the link, as I never would have found it otherwise. I've enjoyed coming back and reading the comments over the past several days, too.

    As you mentioned, this is of course a vast issue, and there are lots of things to say and all kinds of opinions. I, too, had to wonder about the cost (and decision to buy in the first place) that white asparagus - especially $6.50 per pound to stick it on a bus. On the other hand, it's still a lot more 'local' than something from the other side of the world, is supporting organic farming, and, as the chef mentioned, is offering his customers something unique and different - for a reasonable price all things considered.

    As for the actual cost of food - especially higher quality - sold in restaurants, I would bet that not only are the majority of farmers/growers/suppliers not getting rich, but they are barely (if at all) making a profit.

    Last night as I was feeding my two rapidly growing livestock guardian pups we purchased this year to hopefully cut down on the killing of our sheep by coyotes, I did a quick calculation of just how much it is going to cost per year to feed them - and came up with about $600 to $700. That's the gross profit of selling four of our butcher weight lambs - or about a dozen feeder lambs.

    If the pups can keep those four (or even twelve) lambs from being killed by coyotes each year, then of course they'll be helping to earn their keep, but that's a huge expense for our small operation. It's a toss up - risk coyote attack or shell out so much money to feed the dogs. They're not pets, so the cost of keeping them must be looked at solely as a business expense. In addition, we also invested in $2,000 worth of electric fence netting this spring to further deter the coyotes.

    My point is that these large outlays of cash are simply one small example of the possible 'hidden costs' diners and shoppers probably don't know about, and therefore don't take into consideration when judging the true 'cost' of their food. I won't even go into the skyrocketing prices of everything else related to farming - from feed to gas to anything made out of steel. Sadly, at the rate things are going, it'll be a miracle if most small producers - let alone restaurants - are able to stay in business.


  • At 14/6/08 20:53, Blogger FaustianBargain said…

    thanks susan..thats a very interesting perspective. i understand that a lot of farms come up with premium and unusual produce to squeeze a profit. on the flip side, these are usually the same ingredients which are used for dishes that make scant profit at restaurants. generally, on a menu, the pricier/more exotic items are loss making items for the restaurants. from a restauranteur's pov, i'd imagine, there are two ways to make profit...volume(mcD) or premium product(french laundry)...for mid level restaurants to compete with the likes of french laundry(or chez panisse) for premium ingredients is rather odd business logic. even in a good economy, there is such a thin margin. there is even less money now. yes. even in the bay area. it is all rather gray and dreary. and from an economist's(a pessimistic one at that) pov, by the way things are going, it wont be long before paper money becomes useless. restaurants dont hire business people for their costing..granted, i am speaking from atop a passionless perch. economics is not sentimental.

    having said all that from a bookish pov, i encourage everyone to try the white asparagus dish from quince or elsewhere as long as the produce is local and fresh. white asparagus is sublime and it is laudable that chef tusk is getting it from santa barbara(in season) rather than the ones flown in from germany or god forbid, from south america in winter. w.asparagus has a very short season and it is not without reason the europeons go absolutely cuckoo over it. you got to try it..at least once when you can afford it.

  • At 15/6/08 08:50, Blogger FaustianBargain said…

    sam, i am posing a question asked by someone with whom i shared the 7x7 article.

    [..]the pasta maker, who will log a full eight-hour shift making tortellini and agnolotti. When he leaves, a second pasta guy takes over: In total, some 16 man-hours a day are spent making fresh pasta.

    (repharsing a bit)how much pasta does one have to make for a 40something seater restaurant that only has a dinner service?

    and i have to admit...its a valid question. 16 man hours a day to make pasta? seriously? perhaps the 7x7 article is meant to be a tad dramatic?

    i hate saying this because i know how hard chefs have to try to keep restaurants alive..esp if the restaurants dont have corporate backers...but sometimes the desire and burning passion to keep a high end restaurant running is what kills it.

    adaptability is *everything* in this business. if your body isnt capable of walking uphill, why attempt an uphill marathon? will quince kill itself by overreaching? it wont be the first time a restaurant has done so..if the punters are complaining, then its probably time for the restaurant to give the customers what they want at the price point they want. in the coming months and years, there will only be a handful of customers who have the $ to drop on restaurants..but there is a sea of restaurants offering $40 entrees.

  • At 15/6/08 11:13, Blogger Sam said…

    Thanks for all the further comments everyone - Susan and FB especially.

    I can't really comment about how long pasta should take to make by hand in a restaurant. I know it takes me an age when I make a portion for just two people at home. But Quince's selection of homemade pastas are what set it apart from many other restaurants and a reason, specifically, to go there - their reputation hangs on it - which is maybe why there is a lot of time spent on it.
    Also I wasn't sure if it literally meant making the pasta itself or the sauces were also included in that time?

  • At 15/6/08 11:15, Blogger Sam said…

    PS - btw FB - I don't agree SF is yet awash with $40 entrees even though the article implies that. In my experience, under $30 is still the norm except at the higher end places of which Quince is definitely one.


Post a Comment

<< Home