Asheville: The High Cost of Quality

By Jonathan Ammons

There’s been a good bit of Chatter on the interwebs about my recent piece “Asheville: Land of the Discontent”, and for good reason. I made some pretty harsh statements and dealt with the harsh realities of living in this city. There were a thousand points that could consume my entire week torespond, but there were two that stood out at me. The first, I can deal with pretty quickly:

To those who seem offended by my sentiment of, ‘if you don’t like it here, leave.’ I do not intend that to be some smug statement, rather, I mean it in the same way that I would tell my girlfriend, “if those shoes hurt your feet and give you a backache, then don’t wear them.” Simple solutions to not very complicated problems. I don’t like $2,000 rents, having to take a train to work or hearing traffic all night, so I don’t live in New York City. I don’t like being in my car all day, eating at strip malls and flat Piedmont landscapes, so I don’t live in Charlotte. If you don’t like paying a lot of money for food, having to work multiple jobs or the smell of petiole, perhaps Asheville isn’t home for you. Yes, if those shoes are hurting your feet, you should probably chuck them and buy some new ones.

And finally, the “Pricey Restaurant Issue”… I had a lot to say about that. Here it is:

 

A restaurant is an exceedingly complicated business to run. In all honesty, I don’t know what motivates people to do it beyond a fundamental love of feeding people. But once you’ve worked in one long enough, you start to see the ludicrous level of complexities that go into even just the day to day tasks of a restaurant owner, and you really do question the sanity of anyone who would even attempt the most modest of eateries.

It all starts with the inventory: if you do not have inventory, you cannot sell anything. But unlike a hat shop or a vintage clothing store, your inventory is no longer healthy to feed people after just a few days, so it is crucial to only buy as much as you are going to sell that week. And who the hell knows how much you are going to sell that week? No one. So you always have to buy more than you need and you end up, literally throwing away money because of the amount of waste you generate. On top of that, prices never go down on meat. Maybe sometimes on veggies, but rarely on meat. So to keep prices the same on your menu throughout the year, just for the year, to try to make things consistent for your customers, it can end up costing you up to 10% of your profits by the end of the year. And you’re typically only pushing about a 30 percent mark up.

Then you’ve got personnel. You have to hire people to sell this food and people to make it. Unless your Doctor Octopus and have eight arms, I’m pretty sure you’re going to need to hire some folks to cook this stuff. Now, yes, if you’re running a burger joint or a Pub, you can get by with the college dropout you found on Craigslist who is willing to work for $8 but will secretly sell pot out of the back door every minute you’re gone. But try running a little lunch and brunch spot and you’re going to have to spring for the Culinary student or grad, and they have student debt to pay, so you know they are going to be looking to make a living or leave for greener pastures, but you need those kids, cos they know how to cook eggs to temp, something you’re stoner craigslist lackey probably can’t do. And just try opening some place a little nicer than a sandwich shop and watch your cost of labor rise too. You want someone with experience? You want them to have someone that will become ingrained in your kitchen? A long time worker who will make sure that good food comes out of your kitchen for years to come? Than expect them coming to you everytime they get another offer or every time they get in trouble, knock up some girl, or their car breaks down, looking for a raise. Because they’ve earned it, and you know they have, and now you kind of need them around. And now the dollar bills are just flying out of that bank account.

But let’s say that you’re not just a restaurant in any American city, but you are a restaurant in Asheville specifically. Because, lets face it, you moved here for a reason, and most likely, it was the culture, which gives us our reputation of a progressive, open, and consciously minded mountain community, or maybe it was just because you’re a hipster who came to Moogfest and never left. But the majority of things that bring people here are the very things that lead them to have a greater sense of expectations when sitting down to dine here, than at your average slop joint in Indiana. In Asheville, you will have to answer the phone on a regular basis and answer questions like “is your food gluten free?”, “Do you serve Organic foods?” and “Is your food local? Who do you buy from?”. And in order to meet the exceedingly large demand for these kind of products, you have to expand your options so that you have varieties of foods for vegetarians, vegans, gluten free folks, paleo freaks and every other insane diet from every cult from the farthest reaches of the globe. Again, increasing the inventory and the amount of money you have to pay. Then, on top of that, you have to worry about the quality of your food, because here, people also expect quality. So you can’t go buying that frozen beef from the sysco guy, you can’t even spring for the conspicuously labeled “organic” pink sludge that they sell. Instead, you have to buy quality, meats from local producers, because that is what your clientele expects. And guess what? That costs a lot more money, and the price only goes up.

Next let’s look at the front of house. They’re dirt cheap, because in this state, you can pay them 2.75 an hour and they will slave away for tips. Sure, they may drain your booze inventory, show up stoned all the time, if they show up at all, but in this business, you really do get what you pay for. But wait, we’re in Asheville! The land of equal opportunity! The land of the justice minded majority! And here, your clientele expects you to also know that if you pay that staff a little more, you might actually get a good worker who is actually invested in your business and who cares about it! They might even actually show up to work on time! So break out that checkbook again, because if you’re not paying for keeps, then you’re going to spend the same amount of money training flunkies from craigslist who only stick around for 6 months.

And we haven’t even touched on the astronomical prices of commercial Real Estate, the fact that every week, some piece of extremely expensive equipment is bound to break and the only guy who knows how to fix it costs $50 an hour and has to drive from Atlanta, or the local dog shelter coming in asking for donations and gift certificates. Then, after you get done signing a check for all of that, you check Yelp to see that someone has just given you a one star rating because you didn’t have fish and chips even though you’re an Italian bistro, which has caused your score to drop from five stars to four. Then, oh look, there’s the health inspector at the end of the bar, and you never got around to replacing that broken thermometer in the reach in cooler, that means another fine from that bitch! And I still haven’t covered all of the millions of things that can fuck up or add up, penny by penny, I’ve just covered the big expenses. So how expensive is that Hickory Nut Gap Hamburger now?

When you look at places like Cucina 24, where they don’t really even have a freezer for anything but block ice for the bar, you know you are getting fresh, local meat and veggies, not Sysco shit from a can. So when you scoff at the $24 price on that grilled Salmon, just remember, that money is going towards all the stuff listed above, and also the people who farm raised that salmon just up the road from here, you know, your neighbor. But lets take an example from a place that isn’t that high end, let’s look at Homegrown. There you can get a local burger for $7. If that seems expensive to you, then someone really needs to backhand the stupid right out of you. I’m sorry, it is mathematically impossible to get cheaper than that in this town, or virtually anywhere for that matter. The cheapest local burger I have ever seen was at a place called Al’s Bar in Lexington Kentucky, it was still $6.50. Lastly, let’s look at Laurey’s Catering & Gourmet. A living wage establishment that charges you a mere $7 for a stacked sandwich. Expensive, you say? On what planet? Where are these mythical fairy lands where you can get good, wholesome food for under $7 at a restaurant? I’d love to try them out, but I travel a lot, and I sure as hell have not seen anywhere outside of the third world.

So, to sum things up, let’s stop bitching about the prices of things in this town. Are drink prices high at cocktail joints in town? Yes, but they aren’t targeting you if you think they are expensive, that is the point of a cocktail bar. A friend of mine recently moved home to Burlington Vermont. It’s a town that gets a lot of press for the same reasons Asheville does. It’s a sleepy little mountain town with a left leaning mindset and it attracts a similar ilk of person as our fair city. She had some interesting things to say to me after reading a lot of the comments I got on that article. “I had to fight pretty damn hard to get a decent one bedroom apartment in Burlington for $1150/month plus utilities.” She told me, “Yes, Vermont has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, but I’m still struggling to find a job that pays over $10/hour. I cannot afford to eat at nice restaurants here, but does that mean I don’t want them to exist? Crazy talk. I understand Asheville is expensive for the south, but it’s an exceptional place, just like Burlington is in Vermont. Exceptional ain’t cheap. And frankly, Asheville is pretty damn cheap for being exceptional. I know these folks are afraid they will soon face the same higher cost of living that I’m facing here, but I think the sophistication of that city has not come close to catching up to cost of living to comparable cities.”

Lastly, people are in this business to serve you quality foods that they love to make. Nobody wakes up and says, “I want to sell someone something perfectly adequate at an exceedingly cheap price!” And if they did, that would be a terrible business model (although, when I look at some restaurants in the South part of town, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how they operate). They get into it because they have to have some interest in the game too, otherwise your food and drinks are going to taste as boring as the person making them. Food is expensive here because our market has shown that we want quality over quantity, that we demand local and ethically raised food that we can feel good about consuming, and that we have businesses that treat their employees ethically (although this seems like all but a dying breed lately). So if you ask me, is eating out here expensive? No, not for what you get.

9 Comments

  1. Excellent write up, Jon. Not enough people know how much money and effort go into the food they order!

  2. Someone raises salmon just up the road? Do tell! And using Spellcheck would at least save you from misspelling personnel as “personell.” Interesting piece, though, and you make some excellent points.

  3. Jill Prescott Reply

    Very well written article and completely accurate. I owned a French cooking school for 20 years do not think I would b able to offer my type of classes anymore due to the high costs as you have described especially food.

  4. Well written and makes all the strong points about how chaotic and difficult it is to run a restaurant. Thanks Jonathan!

  5. actually ANY business is a risk…not just food. Who knows how much to buy of anything when making something to sell. Costs of machinery counts for many business. still doesn’t mean that it has to be pricey. Need to keep much of this in mind when trying to be competitive and hopefully making some money too. Do you buy american made products (which yes are much more expensive) instead of items made in china/mexico/india? same thought process. those places that people go to and support and can pay the price I guess will stay open…and those that don’t…learning experience. all businesses are a risk. I can’t afford those high priced places. More power to them though.

  6. Great Bandini Reply

    Your analogy about your girlfriend’s shoes leaves a huge target for us discontented with Asheville’s self-contentment to hit. What if your girlfriend only had ONE PAIR OF SHOES? Some of us can’t leave and feel we must at least voice our opinion. Writers like you could educate/critique the town. Problem being – the town can do no wrong whatsoever in many peoples eyes. The Mountain-X won’t even dare write any restaurant REVIEWS. It’s built in to the southern culture and passive hippie culture here to not ruffle any feathers. If one dares mention something“ touted” here is “not so hot” through our life experience – they are told to leave. Some of us would love to leave for these very reasons but are trapped here due to the horrible wages. You telling people to just pack up their gripes smacks of middle class cluelessness of what mobility actually takes = money.

  7. I understand the truth to everything you say in this article. Still, it is a shame to see a place like Taqueria Gonzalez be pushed out of West Asheville because they could not pay the rent that the Buffalo Nickel was willing to pay. It’s also a shame because you could get two fantastic homemade chicken or beef tamales with black beans and rice and a whole assortment of homemade salsa’s for $3.00. That’s right $3.00 !
    But, as you said, there is a price to progress.

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