February 25, 2015
Back in the ‘90s I knew someone who owned a delicatessen on the east side of Manhattan. He was very successful, his store always crowded as food places can be in New York, Paris, and San Francisco.
My friend had what seemed to me then a novel way of pricing his foods. He always made a point of charging more than anyone else charged. The price of his chicken salad sandwich, for example, was $15 and that was a lot in the early ‘90s, even now.
I asked him, of course, having just opened Marvelous Market and beginning to learn how much I didn’t know, how he could justify such prices. He said, “I don’t justify them. I think about what other people charge and I charge as least twice as much. That how my customers know that what we make is good.”
Perhaps some people feel that way about Bread Furst.
I had an exchange last week with a customer. He wrote to say:
Your prices are outrageous. I had a soup and sandwich today. I must tell you that it was delicious! But it set me back $18. For the same price I could have gone to a sit-down restaurant and had a proper meal. You need to make your pricing accommodate the folks who will eat with you 3 days per week. This pricing does not do that. You have conditioned me to avoid your shop because of the prices, not to explore your offerings day to day.
I wrote back of course:
I can say only this: We buy organic flour and use it to make bread. We buy heritage hams from the Hudson Valley, butternut squash from Amish farms, milk from a local dairy, high-fat butter. We make soups with stocks made here from scratch. Our chickpeas come from California from the best of all legume suppliers.
We don’t have to do it this way but making the best food possible is what I want to do. Ten dollars for a sandwich. Five dollars for a soup. These are not cheap prices but they are not outrageous prices.
Food producers like us hope to keep ingredient costs on average below 30 percent of sales prices. That’s easily achievable by those who are content to buy really cheap ingredients. Some popular restaurants in the city do this and keep their menu prices very low.
It is possible that buying expensive ingredients is not something you would ask us to do. Perhaps the differences are noticed only by the most discerning of you. But we buy the best possible ingredients because that’s the kind of place I want to have.
I believe I was committed to quality when in 1997 I opened The BreadLine, a downtown restaurant. We used to make a tuna salad sandwich there. It had a harissa mayonnaise. We made the mayonnaise ourselves and the tuna came from Italy, the harissa from a jar.
But at Bread Furst when we use harissa as an ingredient, it is made here by Hadj Osmani. We make the mayonnaise as we always did but we add to it Robert Dalliah’s preserved lemons, made here, and tuna doesn’t come from a can. Instead we buy fresh tuna loin and confit it ourselves in extra-virgin olive oil and fresh herbs, then aging it a little in our refrigerator.
This may be precious of us but why would we make breads and croissants from scratch and take shortcuts elsewhere?
Of course this doesn’t explain fully why our prices are high and I can blame our prices on the rent, on the huge costs of building and equipping Bread Furst, and on paying good salaries and wages to people who work here.
But I have two additional explanations: More and more I find that some of my ethical considerations drive up our prices. I am trying (unsuccessfully so far) to replace all the plastics we use with compostable products. You’d be surprised to learn how difficult – as well as how expensive it is.
I want to buy as much as possible from local producers. Local produce is far more expensive than commodity produce. I want to be seasonal and that ought to lower our prices – but because we buy from local farms it doesn’t. I want to be as organic as possible and organic grains cost three times as much as non-organic grains.
Perhaps these considerations aren’t important to you. Perhaps, since in effect, we are passing off those costs to you in the form of higher prices, you would prefer that I not impose my values on you.
But there we are.
There is one other consideration that leads us to prices higher than those charged by some others.
When I left do-gooding and started a business career in the early ‘80s, I brought to my business career the socialist impulses of my paternal grandfather and the social work instincts of my maternal grandfather.
Business? I am in business, I would ask myself. How can that be? I am not a businessman.
And I wasn’t. Prices at Marvelous Market were low. Quality was high. We were overstaffed and perhaps I paid people too much.
I certainly repeated that pattern at The BreadLine. At The BreadLine I didn’t even really try to make money.
I opened Bread Furst hoping to contribute something to the neighborhood and I believe we are doing that. But when we opened it I knew that I won’t be able to play for many years the role I am now playing.
The perpetuation of Bread Furst will depend upon its becoming something others want to own – the staff, the neighbors, or an entrepreneur or established operator. Bread Furst will be desirable to others only if it is profitable. Its ultimate survival therefore depends on its financial success.
That may seem axiomatic to you – but it isn’t to me. I come from an anti-business heritage. (My sister Carla ran Politics and Prose like an extension of her family more than as a business.)
I want Bread Furst to be successful. I owe to all those who lent money to me to help start this bakery. I owe it to the neighborhood that has received us with such warmth and given such support. I owe it to my own vision of what a neighborhood bakery can contribute in Washington.