Friday 20 April 2018

Pól Ó Conghaile: Stop cribbing about restaurant rip-offs and start thinking about value...

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For as long as we've had restaurants, we've had complaints about rip-offs. Photo: Deposit
For as long as we've had restaurants, we've had complaints about rip-offs. Photo: Deposit
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

For as long as we’ve eaten out, we’ve complained about rip-offs.

This month, the Daily Mail kicked the old hornets’ nest again by claiming chains like Carluccio’s and Jamie’s Italian mark up simple dishes by as much as 586pc.

True? Maybe, but it’s not the full story.

As Irish food improves (and inspires more travel than ever), misperceptions need to be managed before they ruin perfectly good businesses.

1. Value does not mean cheap.

Recently, I paid €6.50 for a takeaway salad in a ‘healthy’ chain in Dublin. It was cheap. It was also yuck and the room was grotty — poor value for money.

At the other end of the scale, I’ve willingly paid over 15 times that for a tasting menu at a chef’s table in the city. An extravagant splurge, yes — but to me, it was money well spent on cutting edge Irish food and a night to remember.

Bad value stings; good value breeds satisfaction.

2. Margins are thinner than you think

 “€16 for a burger! I’d get four in Tesco for a fiver!”

Sound familiar? Raw ingredients rocket in price by the time they hit your plate, but consider the work it takes to cook and present them — and the hospitality you enjoy. Add rents, wages and insurance (all rising costs in Ireland), along with rates and tax.

Irish restaurants do not levy continental-style cover charges, but many provide free bread and water. And that’s not even starting on customer no-shows.

3. It’s the local economy, stupid

I’ve no interest in defending giant chains. The takings at a good, locally-owned Irish restaurant, however, don’t disappear overseas. They pay for mortgages, school books and swimming lessons.

With local ingredients, the ripple effect spreads to Irish farmers, fishermen, butchers, producers and suppliers. Your bill can literally help build community.

4. ‘The boom is back! I can’t get a table on Saturday nights!’

Maybe so. But have you been on a Tuesday? Or off-season in rural Ireland?

Restaurants don’t charge like airlines and hotels, cranking up prices at peak times (I can only imagine the cacophony on Liveline if they did... though London’s Bob Bob Ricard is trialling the model). If anything, early-bird menus go the other way — discounting off-hours dining, rather than charging a premium for peak.

5. You are what you eat

One way to cut costs in a food business is to use cheaper ingredients. Intensively farmed chicken and pork, imported veg and meats and hyper-processed food can all lower your bill. But at what cost to health, jobs and animal welfare?

Yes, budget eateries need to be part of the picture. But customers are responsible for what they put in their bodies too.

6. ‘This is pretentious BS!’

I get this a lot. Yes, a meal out can be a privilege. So can Sky Sports, a trip to Dundrum or a rake of pints. Irish cynicism is a natural buffer against pretension, and I love it, but it can also prevent us from trying new things. Our food scene is thriving, particularly at the casual end. This is the perfect time to give it a shot.

By all means, call out bad value. Just don’t confuse it with price.

When you buy good, local, sustainable Irish food creatively cooked and served with care, you’re not just buying a meal. You’re buying an experience.

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