Among the many eye twitch inducing, scoff worthy, infuriating phrases associated with professional cookery, one stands above the rest. It burrows under your skin, lingers long enough to see a clinched fist, and, usually, escapes through the ears after your eyes roll it through the back of your head.
“It was overpriced.”
Was it, though? Let’s work through it together.
Ask any casual “foodie” what is important to them when deciding where to eat, and you’ll get mostly the same answer, with emphasis on different particulars from person to person. We want fresh food, bonus points if it’s organic. We want it well thought out. Use quality ingredients. Good portion size. Local farmers. Humane practices. We’d like everybody to earn a living wage. Variety. Vegan options, gluten free options (and preferably substitutions).
Prompt, friendly, experienced service. Above all, we want selection, and value.
But, what do these things ACTUALLY cost? I’ve only cooked professionally in Louisville, so I’ll use this city as an example. I’ll frequently use Mirin as an example, because it’s fresh in my mind- but, please note that I am not complaining, and we very rarely hear those 3 dreaded words.
Quality, Fresh, Local Ingredients
I am fully aware that, should I want to put a bunch of extra dollars on my bottom line, I could go to Restaurant Depot and buy “whatever-frozen-bullshit-this-is” pork belly for $1.39 a pound. However, I can get a far better, tastier, and cleaner product, known as “Berkshire Pork”. Ultimately, I am in this business to serve the best possible product I can, and you, the foodie, are in the market to eat the best there is to offer. That being said, a restaurant is a business (and not of the stress free nature)- it needs profit to exist. So a compromise must be made by both parties.
Where the business must compromise- make less to serve better. This isn’t a super simple deal. Berkshire Pork runs, on average, somewhere around $4.40 per pound, triple what your run of the mill belly will fetch, wholesale. However, the issues don’t end there. Your standard, shitty, mistreated pork will have minimal marbling, resulting in less rendered fat. Kurobuta will have much more marbling, much more layering (read: flavor), resulting in more rendered fat. What does this mean? That price per pound, pre cook, is much, much more, post cook. From a 10 pound belly, we lose about 2.5 pounds of fat. We can use about 25% of that in other ways, but, the rest is usually waste.
This isn’t the only way we compromise. We know you can’t be expected to pay an exorbitant amount for every dish. We would LOVE to use farm fresh eggs- but, they’re roughly triple the price of your standard extra large egg, and don’t make enough of a difference for you to notice. We could buy chains and spines for Tonkotsu broth, but you achieve much more flavor using necks- which, when available, will be sourced through Marksbury Farm, who are a bit more expensive, but, local. It’s a balancing act, one that keeps the caring restaurateur up at night- but, it’s what separates us from, say, *O’Charley’s.
*note- that is purely speculatory and opinion based, and in no way based on any knowledge of O’Charley’s or their, surely, reputable and caring purveyors*
Where you must compromise- With your pocket book. It’s tough, but, we know you wouldn’t have it the other way.
Diving In To The Details
As we touched on before, restaurants are in the business of making money. However, ask Jill Restaurateur, and she will give you a laundry list of reasons it’s a poor investment. Here are a few of them.
In order to be successful, most restaurants operate under universally accepted percentages. Food cost around 30%, labor around 20%. So, how realistic is this?
Well. The short answer is, it’s not. For most restaurants, anyway. There is a widely publicized critical mass in this lovely city, but
it wouldn’t seem our customer base has grown much. To put it in simple terms, the salad is the same size, but it’s now expected to fill more stomachs, and you rarely know when you’ll get a bite. For example- last week, with 3 employees, Monday was FAR AND AWAY our busiest day. Saturday, with 5 employees, we twiddled our thumbs. Those bodies, whether we like it or not, are dollar signs. It’s the reason most chefs spend more time fretting over the orders and numbers than actually cooking. It’s the reason restaurants close. It’s the reason you are seeing increasingly smaller menus, less full service restaurants, and higher tickets. We must make money to survive, no matter how often we convince ourselves otherwise.
Let’s say, hypothetically, you hit those mystical numbers. One would conclude that makes you a successful operation, but, that’s not always the case. Why?
Nickles and Dimes
The margins in this industry are slimmer than you could even imagine. Everything has a price, and everybody wants their cut. For every nine dollars you pay an employee, you pay one dollar of real money for hypothetical unemployment (among other things). Payroll costs money. Workman’s Comp. The insurance company WILL come calling. Internet. Power. Gas. If you pay me plastic, which you definitely will, roughly 3% of your sale will be automatically deducted from my bank account on the 3rd day of every month. Paper towels, hand soap, dish chemicals, neutral floor cleaner, clean linens, broken plates, waste removal, grease trap maintaince, or, God forbid, your $5,000 cooler decides to stop working at 1am, and you come in to a restaurant housing $1,500 worth of spoiled product- plus, the cost to fix said cooler. You had a bad experience, and rather than lose your business entirely, we gave you a free meal, a voucher for a return visit, and hope you’d give us another shot. Every six months, you pay a guy to come clean your super expensive commercial hood, which usually takes about 3 hours and costs you $800. If you aren’t a great accountant, you’ve hired one- and they almost assuredly make more than the rest of your employees. Everything breaks, food goes bad, your special doesn’t move, and, on top of that, the neighborhood you’ve been in for the last 6 years is suddenly trendy, so good luck with that lease negotiation! $13 per square foot? Sorry. Let’s double that.
Again, please don’t mistake me. I’m not complaining. Not really, anyway. My bills are mostly paid, I work for myself. I knew what I was getting in to, as did most chef/owners in this city. If you have a negative experience, 99% of the time, that is not your fault. We don’t aim for you to have a poor time, and, when you do, the vast majority of us are legitimately sorry. I probably take your bad experience more seriously than you do, and I DEFINITELY think about it longer. I’m not alone in this. We ALL want you to be happy. Not just so you come back and spend your money, but because we are proud of what we do.
I’m not asking you to blindly support any restaurant, any price. I’m only asking you to put yourself in the business owner’s shoes before declaring something “overpriced”. More often than not, it’s not over priced- it’s accurately priced, if undersold. If I make $.50 per guest, and do 1000 guests per day, I’m feeling GREAT. If it’s 100 guests per day? The math doesn’t add up.
I’m aware I’ve painted a fairly negative picture here, but, when you see the rash of restaurant closings and surmise why in the comments- this is why. It’s really fucking hard. So, why do we do it?
I dunno. I guess we love it.
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