One of the most common complaints I see from vegetarians and vegans is about the cost of menu items at restaurants. "My grains and vegetables are much cheaper than his burger, so why isn't the vegetarian option way cheaper on the menu?" Or "If I order the chicken entree without the chicken, why do they charge me full price for it?"
Good questions. Luckily, we've got some good answers as well.
Vegetables Are Not Cheap
You'll often hear chefs talking about their target food costs as a percentage of menu prices. In a sit-down, full-service restaurant, the cost of food may account for about 25 to 30%. (That is, for a dish that's listed for $10 on the menu, the raw ingredients that go into it should come in between $2.50 and $3.) This makes sense, right? The more expensive the ingredients, the more expensive the dish should be.
I talked with Tony Maws, chef/proprietor of Craigie on Main and the Kirkland Tap & Trotter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here's how it breaks down at both restaurants, comparing only food costs for a typical meat-based dish side by side with a vegetable dish.
At the Kirkland Tap & Trotter, the roasted chicken for two starts with standard organic chickens that cost $2.55 per pound for whole birds. Each bird weighs 2 1/2 to 3 pounds—let's say it's $7.50 for the whole chicken, which comes out to a food cost of $3.75 per person. The dish also comes with a pumpkin purée, a chicken jus, and some bok choy. These three ingredients add to the plate another $1.25, for a total per-person food cost of around $5, and $10 for two. At 25% food cost, the menu price here should be $40, or $20 per eater.
A recent vegan menu option was a vegetable stew that starts with Chantenay carrots, a round heirloom breed that fetches a price of $3.09 per pound for the whole carrots. After trimming and cleaning, your yield ends up at around 50%, and a quarter pound of those cleaned carrots go into the stew: That's $1.50. Beets come in at $2 per pound, and, after trimming and cleaning, that's another 75¢. Sweet little cipollini onions add 50¢, while spices, green rice, broth, herbs, and other minor elements tack on an additional dollar, for a total of $3.75. Menu price, based on 25% food cost? Fifteen dollars. Of course, making this dish with commodity carrots could easily push that price down (though it would also push down quality).
Based on the cost of ingredients alone, a vegan dish made with good vegetables shouldn't be all that much cheaper than a chicken-based dish.
Menu Pricing Accounts for Labor
Okay, we understand the food costs, but what about labor? The fact is that in most cases, vegetables take more hands-on time to prepare. It's one of the reasons why a big chunk of animal protein is popular both at home and in restaurants. To make that chicken for two, the chicken must be trimmed and roasted. It takes skill to do this properly, but it doesn't require much prep time. Vegetables, on the other hand, must be individually peeled and cleaned before cooking, and most good vegetarian main courses will contain several different vegetables, prepared in a variety of ways.
"The raw materials that go into a BMW and a Honda are essentially the same"
I can prepare a simple chicken to serve two people with just a couple of minutes of actual labor, but prepping even the simplest vegetable-based main course will take several times longer. An even more extreme example: A homemade beef burger is as simple as grinding beef and forming it into patties before cooking it. A good vegan burger requires multiple steps: cooking grains, sautéing vegetables, mashing beans, et cetera, and that doesn't factor in recipe development. (It's much harder to develop a great vegan burger than a great beef burger.) In a restaurant, that labor costs money; hiring skilled cooks isn't cheap. Maws likens labor and execution to making a good car. The raw materials that go into a BMW and a Honda are essentially the same, but you're paying for what's done with those materials and the planning that goes along with it.
There are, of course, elaborate meat-based dishes that require just as much labor as vegetable dishes, if not more, but those meat dishes typically command higher prices than a simple roast chicken.
But What About That Expensive Meat?
So far, all we've really shown is that chicken is as cheap as vegetables. What about pricier raw ingredients? A whole beef rib roast costs around $9 per pound wholesale. Once trimmed, it ends up closer to $20 per pound. Assuming a half pound serving (people like their steaks big) and another $1.25 for the vegetables, sauce, and garnish on the dish, that's about $11.25 in food costs, for a menu price of $45 at our 25% food cost rate.
Well, if we're going to compare like with like, let's look at more expensive vegetables like wild mushrooms, a common vegan and vegetarian menu option. Wild mushrooms, like chanterelles, maitakes, and bluefoots, typically run between $10 and $40 a pound, though it's not unusual to see, say, morel mushrooms fetching $80 per pound during scant seasons (and let's not even get into truffles). You may not be serving more than a few ounces in a dish, so let's conservatively put food costs for a mushroom-based plate with a few other elements at around $10, for a menu price of $40.
"Placing a $15 carrot entree and a $20 chicken dish next to a $40 mushroom dish and a $45 steak doesn't compute"
Here's where one of the first intricacies in menu pricing arises: Menu prices have to make sense to the customer. Placing a $15 carrot entree and a $20 chicken dish next to a $40 mushroom dish and a $45 steak doesn't compute; the range is simply too big. Either the latter two dishes are far too expensive, or the first two are far too cheap. Which sceniaro seems true largely depends on the atmosphere of the restaurant and pricing at similar restaurants, but both cases can be disconcerting.
Because of this, most successful restaurant owners fudge the numbers a bit. "You're willing to lose money on some things because they're important to keep on the menu," says Maws. Perceived value brings customers back. Chicken is a good seller at the Kirkland Tap & Trotter, and people still feel like they're getting a decent value if they spend a couple more bucks on it. And for every serving of chicken sold at $27, a steak can be sold for $38. For every carrot entree sold for $23, the mushrooms can be sold for $32.
This means that in most cases, ordering the more expensive dishes actually ends up giving you more bang for your buck from a raw-ingredient perspective.
But there are still a couple of important questions. Wait a minute, you might say. I'm only eating those carrots. Why should I be subsidizing that guy's steak over there? And the even bigger question: I just ordered the pork, but with extra vegetables instead of the pork chop. Why am I still paying full price?
Fair question. Here's why:
You're Paying for Overhead
Up until now, we've been considering only food cost and labor in the pricing equation. But in order for a restaurant to successfully balance its budget, the folks running the show need to think of prices in terms of check averages—the average amount of money left on the table by each customer at the end of the meal.
Back when I worked in one of Boston's top restaurants, we'd get regular visits by a famous football quarterback. His order was always the same: a simple green salad and a boneless, skinless, pan-seared chicken breast with wild rice and no sauce. Neither of these things was on the menu. Our only green salad also included a dozen other vegetables, each prepared in a different manner: roasted beets, shaved carrots, blanched white asparagus, tiny confit potatoes, et cetera. Our chicken dish had a duck fat–poached thigh, a boned-out wing stuffed with foie gras, and a breast cooked sous vide in bay leaf–infused buttermilk. It came with a sauce made with tiny (and expensive) mousseron mushrooms.
"we're happy to cook you boxed pasta, but your pasta dish is still going to be the same price"
But at that restaurant, we'd do our absolute best to accommodate any customer request, even if it meant preparing something off-menu. In exchange, customers were expected to pay a price that reflected typical menu items. You'd rather have boxed dried pasta than the handmade pasta we serve? Fine—we're happy to cook you boxed pasta, but your pasta dish is still going to be the same price because we'd be losing money on your table if it weren't. (We really had customers who'd make this request!)
Keeping an eye on check averages is necessary because restaurants have fixed costs. Rent, utilities, payroll, insurance, and equipment maintenance don't depend on the number of customers you serve: You've got to keep the lights on and the place air-conditioned whether you're serving one person or 100 people. Other costs, like linens (you'd be amazed at how many tablecloths a fancy restaurant goes through), plates, silverware, and barware, are related only to the number of customers you serve, but are not affected by what they're eating: You're eating off the same plates and tablecloths whether you order the steak or the vegan option.
"If you're doing a $50 check average per customer and serving an average of 150 customers per night, is that going to work? Will that cover your expenses? Whether you're serving beef, lobster, fish, chicken, or vegetables, it needs to fit within that formula if your restaurant is going to stay open," says Maws.
A sit-down restaurant is limited in the number of customers it can serve on a given night by the number of seats there are and how quickly they can turn those seats over to new customers. It's not unusual for popular restaurants to turn away more customers than they actually seat, and, unless those checks average out to a specific number, the restaurant won't be able to sustain itself.
You see this problem rearing its head when a particularly inexpensive dish becomes popular at a generally high-check-average restaurant. Take the burger at The Spotted Pig in New York, Le Pigeon in Portland, Oregon, or Craigie on Main in Cambridge, for instance. You can deal with this issue either by pricing up the burger until you make up the difference, or by limiting availability (say, offering only 10 burgers a night).
You're Paying for the Dining Experience
The final reason why vegetarian prices are comparable to those for nonvegetarian dishes? Restaurants provide more than just food.
I'm paying $20 for a plate of food that I can make for $5 at home! Well, this may well be true, but the fact that many folks still choose to dine at restaurants despite this math indicates that there's value that restaurants add beyond just filling that hole in your belly.
Personally, I go to restaurants primarily for the hospitality and secondarily for the actual food. It's easy to overlook imperfections in the food if the service is gracious and your hosts generous and hospitable, but poor service can ruin the flavor of even the most perfectly cooked meal, whether that meal is meat- or vegetable-based.