Gold burgers or £3 broilers?

For many people, the belief has been that a free-range chicken costing at least £10 is priced too highly, whereas in reality, the argument should probably be that it’s the £3 broiler that is underpriced. Our thinking has arguably been polluted by the availability of ever cheaper food prices – irrespective of animal welfare and sustainability. This has a close correlation with fast fashion, which has convinced many people that it is right to pay only a few quid for a t-shirt and not think about the broader impact on society and the environment of such purchases.

Modern intensive farming keeps food prices down

As inflation sets in, supply chains become strained and sustainability moves ever higher up the agenda, maybe we are entering a period when the fundamentals of our consumption patterns are being recalibrated – and this includes a change in the way we price food. This is certainly the hope of Mark Lumsden-Taylor, chair of the Rural Policy Group, who suggests we are at the dawn of a new food era where people are ready to re-engage with production and give more weight to provenance, ethical concerns and nutritional value rather than price.

This comes at a very interesting time, because there have been several very lively media debates about the pricing of dishes at the restaurants of certain celebrity chefs. Tom Kerridge was lambasted for charging £87 for steak and chips at his Hand & Flowers pub in Marlow, while Gordon Ramsay was pilloried for the £32 fish and chips dish on his menu at The River Restaurant in The Savoy Hotel.

The consensus is that these are indeed large numbers, but I’d argue they are not the rip-off prices that many people have suggested. There is no doubt that these two chefs will be sourcing top-notch ethically reared/produced/farmed ingredients and, I certainly expect, paying their employees a full and proper wage. On top of this, we all know the pricing of a dish of food considers way more than simply the food on the plate. Would anybody in their right mind believe fish and chips at their local cafe is the same experience as a night out at The Savoy, or within the cosy environs of Tom Kerridge’s two-Michelin-star dining room in Marlow?

What frequently gets lost in such arguments is that restaurants must make a profit. It seems that this is so often regarded as a dirty word – including, rather perversely, by some in the industry. Talking recently to Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Chicago-based three-Michelin-star Alinea restaurant, he suggested many people are only willing to concentrate on the food and drink side of things while actively avoiding any other elements such as accounting, technology and marketing. Because of this, they simply do not run sustainable businesses.

Restaurants have to charge at levels that deliver profitability, and I don’t believe for one minute that Ramsay and Kerridge, along with many other top chefs charging what are absolutely big numbers, are living large on excessive profit margins. Personally, I have a higher-than-average threshold for what I will pay for a meal and it includes many factors, one of which is the ethical sourcing of the ingredients. I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that high-end menus must include typical luxury fayre as fois gras, Wagyu beef, lobster and truffles – especially when provenance and ethics are in doubt. One of the most memorable meals I’ve enjoyed was at L’Arpège in Paris, which was extremely costly and only involved the humble vegetable, but the experience was worth every penny.

“Salt Bae” with his gold-wrapped meat

One supposed ingredient I have absolutely no interest in seeing on any menu is gold leaf. Which brings me to another celebrity chef currently in the media over his extravagant pricing – Nusret “Salt Bae” Gökçe – who has just opened his London outpost Nusr-Et at the Park Tower Knightsbridge. With gold wrapped burgers at £100 alongside Tomahawk steaks at £800, Wagyu striploin at £120 and £50 cappuccinos, this is certainly uber-premium pricing.

Sadly, these prices seem calculated purely to extract the maximum profit (well beyond what could be described as fair and respectable margins) from customers as Salt Bae leverages his worldwide social media fame. It’s certainly one way to earn a chunky profit, but I’m not so sure about the long-term sustainability of the project.

While such places are good entertainment for some people, I hope their activities do not detract from the serious debate that needs to be had around what we should be paying for food – and which ultimately benefits all stakeholders. Let’s just pray we are not tripped up by a £100 burger when trying to convince people to cross the road to avoid the £3 chicken.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.