Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Do you get better value with more expensive ingredients? (food, economics)

As I was looking back on my New Year Michelin restaurants countdown, I pondered the wide range of costs across the featured meals, especially the prohibitively more expensive Masa. Kajitsu seemed the cheapest in comparison to all the others, and I attributed that to their base ingredient costs being lower as they did not use any meat or fish. The meal at WD-50 also did not really feature very expensive ingredients, but the higher cost seemed justified by the use of techniques exclusive to the restaurant and its chefs. Masa, on the other hand, while definitely showcasing some technique, felt like much of it was based off of expensive ingredients such as white truffles and fish flown in from Japan.

My first thought was that restaurants make money off of food and wine markups. So it seemed to me that Masa, where I felt we were really paying for ingredients, offered the worst value in that the money was going to the part of the equation where the restaurant makes the most money. Thinking about it a little more, I don't think that's right. The difference lies in the fact that cheap food is in fact really cheap. Because of mass production, many basic meat and vegetable ingredients are so cheap that it allows regular restaurants to have markups that are many multiples of the ingredient cost. I don't think that a markup of an expensive ingredient can reach as high a multiple. For example, just recently, a bluefin tuna sold for a record 32.49 million yen (just shy of USD$400,000) at auction. I wonder how they will recoup their investment, let alone make money.

Of course a restaurant may sell one rare item, such as the aforementioned bluefin tuna, at cost in the hopes of creating business by generating more wine sales or just increasing publicity. However, a restaurant takes much more risk when dealing with rare, expensive ingredients. As I mentioned while discussing fresh fish in Hong Kong, there's often no second chance when cooking with these ingredients. You can't just refire a dish because you overcooked it or undercooked it.

Now, value is in the eye of the buyer, and of course the difference in cost between a meal at Masa and a meal at your local sushi joint will vary in significance for different people. But, ceteris paribus, is there a reasonable argument that there is actually more value to be had at expensive restaurants serving expensive, rare, perishable ingredients?

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