I went for lunch the other day with my family and the bill came to more than $8,000 (inclusive of GCT & 10% gratuity). $8000! Can you believe it? No beverages consumed, except tap water, which is free. No desserts eaten. Oh, and we were two adults, a four-year-old and a baby. Needless to say, we went right back to roast breadfruit, yam and chicken foot soup the next day! The thing is, I can understand why some restaurants charge these kinds of prices. What with rent, all the utility bills, staff wages, and soaring food costs, of course, what else can you expect, especially if the latter includes imported products? And therein lies one thing a restaurateur can control albeit somewhat.
Thursday Life recognises that every single person in this country is affected by the economy, and every single person has to eat. Sure, we could all go down to our local markets and only ever have home-cooked meals, but that is not exactly realistic in this day and age. Plus, the restaurant industry needs our support. But how do we do this when prices are so high? Even at $1,000, eating out puts a strain on us. And to think that there are some people who think that's a bargain. I remember when you could get a square meal for less than $5. Alas, that chapter is over.
For the next few weeks, Thursday Life is taking $500 to as many restaurants, cafés and cook shops as possible, to see where that will pay for the bill. If we get back change, that will be a brilliant bonus. Having started this venture last week, we soon realised that while there are actually options, many establishments only offer a couple of meals under this price, and often these are in fact marketing tools.
Take, for example, Marchabella Bistro & Café, which has a cooked lunch special for $500. "It is by sheer miracle that we keep this price down," commented Managing Director Margaret Campbell, who nailed the Best Kept Secret Award at the Jamaica Observer Food Awards in May this year. Despite this accolade, Marchabella serves 10 and 20 customers for the entire day.
"We don't buy in bulk here, so it is hard. We buy items such as jasmine rice, so the special is more like a marketing investment," she admitted. What about local produce, we asked. "I get produce from Coronation Market, Pricesmart, or wherever has the best prices," Campbell informed Thursday Life. "We also use cuts of meat that are less expensive for our lunch specials, like cow foot. But we try and do something more creative than the average box lunch-type dish."
While most of the menu is closer to the $1,000- mark, Marchabella offers a few breakfast meals for under $500, a hearty and filling soup for $350, and huge sandwiches with side salads for $500 flat. For $250-$300 they will deliver; however, if an order is a minimum of $4,000, that charge is dropped. It would make sense for an office of eight or more to have the lunch special, or other items, brought to them.
Paul Shoucair, who opened his New Leaf Vegetarian take-out restaurant in Liguanea Lane Plaza three years ago, is more successful at keeping his food at a reasonable rate. The proof is in the steady flow of followers -100 on average between 12:30 pm and 2:30 pm, and another 100 throughout the remainder of the day.
"We keep the prices down in two ways: one, we use all local ingredients, and two, we minimise our margins by increasing volume," he revealed. All of New Leaf's main meal specials rest at $500, the wholewheat wrap specials are $450, the 'doubles' (curry chick peas wrapped in two soft fried circles of dough) are $300, and two vegetable patties (very filling) cost $360. The owner of New Leaf informed Thursday Life of a survey he sent out to the 800 people in his e-mail database. "Thirty per cent of them said my restaurant is slightly expensive," he told us.
Shoucair is no novice when it comes to the raw grit of running a restaurant in a diminishing economy. "Economy affects all businesses," he pointed out. "People's incomes have been devaluing for the last 20 years. We are at a critical juncture; we don't see an improvement in the future, and we cannot see how to make more money. With increased overheads, it becomes a big challenge. The only way, therefore, is to dominate in a particular genre, and rely on volume to absorb the costs.
"My food prices cannot change. They have to remain the same. So I get 90 per cent of my ingredients from one farmer. I buy enough from him to get market price. Anything I cannot get, I go down to Coronation Market. This is often the fruits for the juices and smoothies.
"Then I also have a strict system of measurement within the kitchen, down to the ounce, for each meal. For instance, I know that 'x' lbs will give me 'y' servings.
"To a certain extent I can control the cooking materials, but not the costs of the packaging, gas, JPS, cleaning chemicals, and so on, which are not cheap!"
Shoucair noted the needs of people when it comes to dining. "The sit-down restaurant has become something of the past. Portable food is the way. The price and the nature of how people eat calls for the right type of restaurant." Price is obvious - a take-out joint doesn't need the quantity of staff to service customers, and less space is also required. But what did he mean by the nature of how we eat?
"I have things ready to go here at New Leaf, so that customers wait less than two minutes for their food. If they want something cooked to order, it will take five to seven minutes," he informed us. "Even at that speed, people are calling me to order their food from a few minutes away. Two minutes is still not fast enough for them. But they still want three-star food for the one-star price, and this is the future of food."
According to loyal patrons at JR's Family Restaurant in Barbican, this sentiment is on the taste buds. "It is hard to get good food at a good price, so I come up here every day," Wayne Pryce, who assists Kingsley Gardner at the Jamaica Observer gym, told Thursday Life.
Pryce and his buddy, Phillip Lobban (AKA DJ Music Phill from Roots FM), do eat at JR's almost every day. "Except Sunday," Lobban commented, "because they aren't open then."
It really is quite simple to see why they, and many others, stand by Michael Ralph, the owner of JR's. Aside from feeling like you've stopped by your favourite cousin's house for a quick bite, the prices are simply too good to pass up. 'Burger' box lunches come in three sizes, resulting in things like turkey neck & beans and sweet and sour chicken costing $250, $300 and $390, and slightly more expensive options like curry goat at $290, $390 and $490, respectively. In fact, the only thing on the menu that could be considered costly is fish, which just tips over the $500-mark. Ralph refuses to let the sliding economy get him down, and finds that "the key to keeping the prices down is to buy local. I shop at Coronation Market, and I am always looking for the best prices around that day. I will actually call around asking their prices before heading somewhere."
And that's how you ensure that all your customers only need a nanny!
MARCHABELLA BISTRO & CAFÉ
Shop 1, Mid Spring Plaza, 134 Constant Spring Road, Kingston 8
Telephone: 969-2233, 855-8431
Mondays - Saturdays 8:00 am - 6:00 pm; Sunday brunch at the end of the month.
NEW LEAF VEGETARIAN
Lane Plaza, Liguanea, Kingston 6
Mondays-Fridays 11:00 am - 7:00 pm; Saturdays 12 noon - 7:00 pm
JR'S FAMILY RESTAURANT
Barbican Road (adjacent to the Barbican Business Centre), Kingston 6
Mondays-Thursdays 8:00 am - 8:00 pm, Fridays & Saturdays 8:00 am - 10:00 pm
Keep an eye out for next week's edition, when Thursday Life continues the search for meals that cost $500 and less (inclusive of GCT).