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Nate Pollak Headshot

I Paid How Much for a Sandwich?

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As grilled cheese continues to make its way onto restaurant menus, and grilled cheese restaurants continue to open, I find myself reading online reviews, reactions, and blogs from satisfied and sometimes unsatisfied customers. I'm continuously perplexed by a particular customer comment that seems to plague every grilled cheese restaurant's opening, "I can't believe I just paid $XX for a grilled cheese. This is something I could have made at home. "

Hmmm... really? Not that I distrust this statement; but the implication of this statement to me, as a businessperson and restaurant owner, is so hypocritical that I wish I could respond to that person directly and ask them, "So then why did you choose to purchase a grilled cheese in the first place?"

Grilled cheese is easy to make at home. Bread, butter and cheese -- cook it on a griddle, in an oven or a sandwich press. Maybe throw some sliced tomato on there, some bacon or ham; how about some sautéed mushrooms or caramelized onions? You can do it! Moms, college students, snackers and Phish concert goers have been doing this for decades. But -- as you might have experienced or observed, grilled cheese is also really easy to screw up. I know I have burnt a few grilled cheeses in my day.

This attitude that "I can make it at home" is something I see plague other simple, comfort food establishments: sausage places, burger joints, sandwich shops, even fried chicken spots. But let's take a closer look at what these restaurants are doing that you can't do it home, which is why you choose to eat there in the first place, ideally.

When you eat at a local restaurant, you're supporting the livelihood of its owners, employees, vendors, and its community.
Can you do that from your home kitchen? Sort of. Sure -- you can buy the groceries from a local grocery store or famers market, which is a good thing. But the service at a restaurant -- someone else making the food, cleaning up after you, and maintaining a clean and sanitary public place -- is what you're actually paying for (among other things). Every aspect of the restaurant, from its décor, quality of ingredients, technology, service, equipment, staff -- is all paid for by your mighty dollar (and trust me, the restaurants really appreciate your mighty dollar!).

Restaurants also satisfy one of the most important needs that we as urban dwellers often forget about -- CONVENIENCE. Don't forget that you're paying for convenience, and restaurants pay huge sums of money, mostly in payroll, to offer you that convenience.

Now I mean my next statement in earnest -- San Francisco rules; especially since we are the first city in the U.S. to have a double-digit minimum wage. On January 1st, 2012, minimum wage in San Francisco became $10.24 per hour. This is a great thing. The cost of living in San Francisco is the highest in the country, and even those who make above minimum wage are barely getting by. At my restaurant, we are pleased to pay above minimum wage (our starting pay is still higher than the new minimum wage).

Your regular purchase, at a premium price, of that delicious wild boar and smoked cherry sausage from the local sausage place creates a job(s) -- it really does -- in fact, better-paying food-service jobs than any other place in the country.

So how does a restaurant in San Francisco stay in business when their operating costs increase? Let's take a hypothetical look at this situation. Say the minimum wage increase really cuts into the operating margins of a restaurant, and they are forced to make some decisions: lay-off staff? get cheaper ingredients (or if they're good/lucky, negotiate for lower pricing from their vendors, in which case the vendor may be now faced with the tough decisions)? raise prices? You see what I'm getting at. What happens to this restaurant if they choose to raise their prices? In my experience I've seen two things: incredible support from the loyal customers (good!), and negative sentiment from disgruntled customers who believe the restaurant is now too expensive, even though they haven't changed their food or service (not cool!).

This is where the hypocrisy of the restaurant consumer becomes frustrating to many restaurant owners. It was us, the taxpayer, who voted for an increase in the minimum wage; and it was us that require small businesses with low profit margins like restaurants to provide health care for all employees (which I also support); but these funds need to come from somewhere (most restaurants here actually do an outstanding job of clearly explaining, whether on a menu or bill, the additional fees charged to the customer to cover many of these costs).

However it's us, the consumer, who choose not to eat at a restaurant, or even worse, publicly defame the restaurant because it's gotten more expensive.

It was us, the consumer, who told restaurateurs that we value green, biodegradable packaging, and would pay more for it. Now when the new, hip restaurant chooses all green packaging for their take-out orders and subsequently charges a slightly higher price, we complain (then snatch more napkins and ketchup packets than we'll actually need). Biodegradable packaging costs an average of twice as much as traditional packaging, and four times what environmentally unfriendly Styrofoam costs.

It was also us, the consumer, who told restaurateurs that we value cage-free, sustainable, and humane dairy, eggs and meats. These products also cost 50% to 100% more than their traditional counterparts, and this is on top of increasing food and fuel commodities prices (FYI - Denny's just announced price increases across the U.S. to cover increasing commodity costs).

Once again, you see what I'm getting at.

These challenges aren't unique to restaurants. Many industries face similar challenges, and those that make the right decisions to please all their stakeholders, most importantly the customers, survive. This is what we sign up for as business owners.

But if you can make better food at home, then go for it; I think that's cool. If you choose to take a small gamble on what you're about to eat, check out a local eatery, support a small business and everything it stands for; I think that's cool too. If you're satisfied with your entire experience, even better. If you're not satisfied, at least you tried something new.

But if you think the restaurant was too expensive for what you got -- whether you liked the food/service or not -- then maybe just don't eat there again. Or perhaps send a feedback note to the owner or manager. The public cries of indignation over restaurant prices are getting old.

You can't have it both ways, folks. In San Francisco, we're a community that relies on each other, and the decisions we make together, to survive.