May 12, 2008
Restaurants and the rising price of food

The folks in the food business are feeling the pinch.

Restaurants across town are facing the same problem this Mother's Day, one of the busiest dining-out days of the year: a reluctance to pass on their higher costs to customers who themselves are dealing with higher food and fuel costs.

Instead, they tighten their belts and get innovative: bake their own bread, grow their own eggplant, use fewer high-end ingredients, reward employees for being less wasteful and buy smarter.

Wholesale food prices have shot up about 8 percent in the last year, the highest jump in three decades, according to the National Restaurant Association.

The rising cost of fuel, corn and soybeans are among the reasons. Chicken and pork prices are expected to spike soon.

All this has chefs, cooks and owners improvising.

Three weeks ago, Mia Bella owner Youssef Nafaa began baking his own bread, after watching his wholesale bread prices rise.

And Patrenella's executive chef, Ryan Hildebrand, is growing more of his own vegetables.

When he came to the Heights-area Italian restaurant a year ago, a vegetable garden already was in place.

But with the price of some vegetables shooting up, Hildebrand is making the garden a more integral part of the restaurant.

"It definitely saves us money," he said. "It's not big enough to supply all the volume we go through, but it supplements us. I try to make all the specials garden-driven."


Tracy Vaught, owner of Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's and Prego and co-operator of Trevisio in the Texas Medical Center, said her crews are updating cost sheets and holding themselves more accountable for errors in cooking, service and administration.

"Mistakes cost a lot of money," she said.

In January, Vaught launched a profit-sharing program for her managers tied to them saving her restaurants money, and "it's working like a charm," she said.

Vaught has raised some menu prices "in targeted ways, but not across the board and very modestly."

Open City will raise its menu prices very gradually, 3 to 5 percent, every few weeks, Aly said.

"We tell owners not to be afraid of a menu price increase if it's done correctly, and the perception of value and quality is still there," said Chris Tripoli, president of A'La Carte Foodservice Consulting Group.

It's easier for a customer to accept a somewhat higher price than a smaller portion or lower quality, he maintained.

I'm not sure I agree about the portion size issue. I suppose it depends on the restaurant and the portion size in question. I think there's plenty of places that could serve ten percent less food with each entree, and nobody would notice or have much grounds for complaint. Not cutting back on quality I agree with, but quantity? Maybe this will finally be the solution to America's obesity problems. Hey, you never know.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 12, 2008 to Food, glorious food
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