Sunday, August 10, 2008

Deep Thoughts in Agitated Waters

August 10, 2008
From: La Isola

I find it nearly impossible to wade into shallow water these days. Or maybe the problem is that I am wading in shallow water thinking it’s the deep end. I really didn’t intend to go here today. But sitting under the sun, watching the earth rotate while clouds above smirked at my insular orientation, it just popped out.

It started last week as I visited a group of restaurants. Here in North Texas it is restaurant week, a two to three week period in which selected restaurants dream up a three to four course menu, some of the proceeds going to a charity. Diners flock to these places, in the hope of getting a taste of a life they don’t normally frequent. Salespeople for distributors have been scrambling to print special food menus and to also reprint wine lists. Some of the wine lists will show higher wine prices.

I had forgotten that happened. After all, the other day I was looking at a list in the northern-burbs with a wine that I know the restaurant paid about $17 for. On the list they had it priced at $66. Ouch.

But does it really matter? We have countries going to war with each other, does it really mean anything if some poor slug in a bedroom community spends a little more than he should for a bottle of wine? So he pays $20 more than he should. He drives 30 miles less than he would if he drove into town with his gas-hog SUV, which gets 12mpg. Which works out, at $4 a gallon, to saving him about $10 in gas. And then there’s the time factor. So when countries across the planet are sending their citizens out and away from targeted urban areas to escape destruction of life, it really isn’t that big of a deal.

Back to Italy. A farmer makes a wine and sells it for €4.50, that’s about $6.75. It costs about $1 for taxes and to get it over. The importer adds 35%, the wholesaler adds 28% and that brings us to almost $17, if you round up. The restaurant owner marks it up to $66. That’s 10x, with the highest mark up at the end. BYOB places start looking better and better. Or cooking at home.

I mention this to a friend and colleague, who is also a mid-level manager. Forget about talking to the bar manager about this; they do not want to hear about anything that has to do with them making lesser margins, in percentage points. Bean counters don't want to hear it. Forget about the argument that you take dollars to the bank, not percentages. Forget the concept of getting good press for marking up your wine and then having the word spread. Forget about taking more money to the bank. And then folk wonder why so many places across the country are closing? Ask Charles Darwin.

The feel good part to this story? When you go to Italy and buy that same bottle of wine in a trattoria, you’ll probably pay somewhere around €12, which is under $20. See, the dollar doesn’t really suck as bad in Italy as it does in the US. And you’ll probably get charged somewhere around €50 (US $75) for dinner for two. So you get out for under $100. In a similar situation in Anytown, USA with the wine costing $66 and two people eating for around $50 each plus tip, you’re looking at almost $200. And the food will probably better fresher, simpler and better at the place in Italy. Now doesn’t that make you feel better?

It almost makes taking a vacation a cheaper thing to do than to just stay home. But then, home is where the work is, and the family, the life, etc.

While taking a ten day or two week vacation might be something that some folks reading this do on a regular basis, what do you do about the daily routine when you are at home?

Learning how to cook is a good first step. Then, learning where to source fresh, local or otherwise wholesome ingredients is a good next step. If you are lucky enough to have a store specializing in the foods you love, you are a very lucky person. In my home town, not far from where I live, there is a store that does that. Only Italian products. Even here in flyover country we have folks who give a damn. Mike and Paul DiCarlo, who own Jimmy’s in Old East Dallas (what used to be the Italian neighborhood), have dedicated themselves to all the above, and priced for folks other than the millionaires who are constantly worrying about losing their fortune. So that would be for most of us. Very cool solution.

And when another Italian restaurant closes in my town, I will not mourn its loss. All the more if they never listened to me about which wines to use and whether or not to employ fair pricing. Natural selection, the survival of the fittest.

And after 25+ years, that’s how I wage war. Quietly, peacefully, and with a good meal and a bottle of wine of my own choosing.


Bill Averett said...

Wow, I agree with you on so many of your points here, but what truly bothers me is that, even cooking at home has become so expensive. When you are looking for the best ingredients(freshest, heirlooms, independent butchers and seafood catch), the prices are way high. The one place that I definitely know I save is on the wine. I couldn't agree with you more. I live in VA, and it is illegal to bring your own bottle of wine to a restaurant, so if you go out and want to drink wine, you are forced to pay for it. I often find myself ordering something I haven't heard of, to fool myself into thinking I'm not getting ripped off. At least that way, I'm having a "new" experience.
One criticism that I have is your put down of the bar manager. You act as if the bar manager is setting the price. I'm pretty sure that the mid-level manager is the one rattling off the percentages in his ear. And besides, it is all predicated on the philosophy of the owner.
All in all, I have respect for the independent guy who is trying to make a living, facing inflation in food and the delivery of it, rising wine prices, the always too high rent, AND the flurry of "un-predictables", i.e. walk-in goes down, low boys crap out, AC stops working on a Friday night, plumbing clogs before the first turn, and the ever-present need for "good help."
So, cheers to all of you out there that ARE fighting the good fight, and to those that are doing it "right."

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks William:

I am sure the bar manager is getting the directive from above.

But the bar manager also gets to hear the feedback from the front lines, something the bean counters never seem to be concerned with. In my past experience, I felt it important to let the owners, managers,accountants know that the real world was pushing back.

Thanks for your insights, pleasure to have you on.

Bill Averett said...

Absolutely, that's why the bar managers are usually the guys coming up with happy hour programs, wine night ideas, etc... As well as the being the soldier, pointing out to the owner or higher manager, who the regulars are, and why it is important to reward these regulars with a "comped" glass of wine, cup of coffee, or dessert, or discounted bottle, etc...
But, there are plenty of apathetic souls out there.

Tracie P. said...

i have pretty much given up on eating italian food out. most of the time, i know i can do it better myself, at home. the problem with this is, as william said, even a trip to the grocery store fa male! i go about 4 times a week (too much, i know) and spend at least 30 dollars, every time. that does NOT include wine. i cook for a friend or two about once a week, so you see, i'm spending almost 500 a month, just to feed myself (well, i'll admit). i don't skimp on the good stuff, but i'm not eating the fillet every night either.

in any case, whether you eat out or in, i agree, it's getting to be very expensive to do either one well.


Anonymous said...

i never eat fillet. it doesn't have any flavor. i like tri-tips, flank steak, pork loin. as for fish i spend more since it's fresh and worth it. as for my wine expenses, it skews everything off the charts. cooking at home with wine still beats the hell out of most restaurants. There are a few notable exceptions though. I ain't telling.

Unknown said...

I drink Vitamin Water and eat turkey burgers. They both were on sale at Whole Foods last week.

Count your blessings.

Anonymous said...

BK, this is all well and good since you have a resident peacock who likes to show her/his drumsticks, but what about us poor people who don't have peacocks? I would check on that turkey and vitamin water from whole paycheck. They have had a slight problema with their beef. I'm sure it's organic and all, but I'm just sayin'.

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