Photo: Jaime Hogge
Corey Mintz Explains Why Restaurants Are So Expensive and Diners Should Pay More
In 'The Next Supper,' the Winnipeg food journalist shows how the pandemic disrupted the restaurant industry, why you should care and what you can do about it / BY Corey Mintz / November 17th, 2021
Now that restaurants and bars are opening up, most diners have noticed prices for everything from burritos to steak frites to multi-course tasting menus have spiked. Some of us know the post-pandemic economy is experiencing inflation, especially as gas and grocery bills are also approaching the stratosphere.
I hate to be the bearer of unpopular news, and this may seem counterintuitive, but inflation is only part of the reason your $15 bowl of ramen costs $30 by the time it arrives at your door. The reality is that restaurant food has been too cheap for too long.
For decades, the cost of meat has been kept artificially low by subsidies to farmers who grow commodity crops like corn or soy, which feed livestock. Menu prices have been held in check by cooks willing to work for poverty wages, their culinary passion exploited by owners with an eye on slim profit margins. Across the board, legal, sub-minimum wages for tipped employees like servers or food couriers, who are “independent contractors,” helped restaurants keep costs down. When you get the cheque, the cost of your meal is further obscured by the custom of tipping, which adds 20 per cent on top of taxes, even though the restaurant pretends it is optional.
And now all of these things are changing.
Supply chain issues are pushing up prices on beef (13 per cent), pork (9.5 per cent), chicken (10.3 per cent), butter (6.3 per cent) and cooking oil (21.5 per cent!). After a quarter of the workforce left the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurateurs have had little choice but to offer better wages to attract or retain staff. In Ontario, a nominal increase in the minimum wage ($0.65) will be accompanied by the abolition of the sub-minimum wage, removing a key argument for maintaining the status quo on tipping. This is all on top of the debt most restaurateurs have accrued in the past 20 months.
No restaurant has margins wide enough to absorb all these increased costs, or to pay an actual living wage (in Toronto, a worker needs to make $22.08 an hour to meet their basic needs), without passing some of it on to the diner. The cost of dining out is going up 4 per cent this year, according to the hospitality lobby group Restaurants Canada, and I think it is reasonable to assume it will continue to do so.
The good news is that some of our money is going to pay for something we should all want – a more equitable restaurant industry.
Two years ago, when I began researching my new book, The Next Supper, change seemed unthinkable in the restaurant industry. There was too much stasis and reliance on way things were, whether it worked for everyone or not. When you know what happened in March of 2020, it was a paroxysm of biblical proportions that almost seemed designed to destroy the restaurant industry (along with movie theatres, concert venues and any other business that requires people to gather indoors). It’s been a disaster I wouldn’t wish on the meanest character in an Irwin Allen movie. However, because of this destruction, old problems and possible solutions are seeing the light for the first time in decades. There is an opportunity to reshape the industry, to make it a fairer, more sustainable place for everyone to work. But it’s going to cost money, and that will be paid by customers (unless we want to nationalize restaurants).
Dining out – having someone else cook and serve us food – was a luxury up until the mid-20th century, when we barely spent a quarter of our food budget on restaurants. But as the various forces that kept prices low were introduced (farm subsidies and sub-minimum wages aren’t customs, they’re laws), we’ve been conditioned to see eating out as a right in a middle-class lifestyle. Along the way, the money we spend on restaurants has more or less equalized with what we spend on groceries. In fact, just before the pandemic, spending on food away from home began to exceed spending on food at home. Unlike the grocery store, where most of us are locked into a relationship with one or two supermarkets near us, we have much more choice about where to eat.
So let’s make those dining choices matter. The “labour shortage” you’ve heard so much about is really just a market adjustment as a generation of hospitality workers, having had a physical and mental break for the first time in years, decided the raw deal just wasn’t worth it any more. But over the course of reporting my book, searching for better types of restaurants to support, I came across people operating their businesses in ways that challenge the status quo: transitioning to a co-op model; compensating staff with profit sharing; engaging workers with open-book management; or replacing tipping with a living wage. None of those people have any problem holding on to staff. They are not experiencing a labour shortage, because they’ve created good jobs people want to stay in and grow in.
When you hear about a restaurant that’s doing things differently, consider voting with your dollars by supporting that business. Rather than consulting the latest list of “hot new restaurants,” think about returning to your favourite restaurant, the one that’s always been good. Don’t they deserve your patronage more?
That Portlandia sketch where diners keep asking their server, “is it local?” had a chilling effect on ethical dining by making it seem performative. But don’t be afraid to have conversations about how restaurants are run, how tips are divided and what safety precautions are in place for staff. These are entirely reasonable questions to ask, but not rudely, and not when the server or manager is too busy to answer. You want to communicate that diners care about these things.
After being a cook, a restaurant critic and a food reporter, and knowing how restaurants are run, I’ve spent the last two years asking one question: How do I eat out without looking the other way? I think it matters to a lot of us, and I’ve found some answers.
Here’s one idea. As prices rise, people will complain, rather than ask why. Yes, prices are going up incrementally at the retail level, but they are going up exponentially at the wholesale scale for restaurants. Most of us don’t employ a group of minimum-wage workers, and the cost of a drum of fryer oil is not relevant to our day-to-day lives. The increased costs to restaurateurs are hidden from us. So when your friends around the table start to complain that they’re being swindled, be the person who puts up their hand and says, “Gang, there’s a reason for all these changes.”
Let’s engage restaurants in the conversations, too. The ones trying to bring staff up to a living wage will not be shy about the topic. If we can ask for a gluten-free pizza crust, or to split the bill six ways, you can ask the server, the manager and the owner who gets the tips and how they are divided. You’ll know you’re not getting the truth if you get different answers. It used to be unheard of for tips to be distributed evenly among servers, bartenders, hosts, bus people, cooks and dishwashers, but it’s becoming less rare now, and will only continue to grow if we demonstrate that it matters to diners. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to afford restaurant meals have an opportunity to encourage the change we want to see in our dining culture.
The bottom line is that when food is cheap, someone or something is at a disadvantage. If we want to feel good, knowing that all stakeholders are being valued, it’s going to cost a premium.