The Dollar-Wise Gourmet: The Budget Blues

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Month after month, The Dollar-Wise Gourmet devotes herself to finding savvy solutions for cost-conscious consumers. But in these recessionary times, you’re not the only one singing the budgetary blues. Restaurateurs are, too.

Who cares, you ask? Well, what affects them affects us. And in case you hadn’t noticed, menu prices have been rising and portions are getting smaller—at least at some local restaurants.

But don’t wag the finger of blame at them. With business down, fuel costs up and the price of ingredients rising higher than a chef’s toque, restaurants are facing a triple threat that could spell disaster for those who don’t have a creative brain ticking under that puffy white cap.

For Doug Silva, co-owner and executive chef of Silva’s Sheldon Inn in Elk Grove, getting creative means offering a wider selection of lower-priced entrées featuring chicken, pasta or pork—something he’d rather do than raise prices, despite a 20 percent drop in business. “We’re holding firm to our pricing structure, absorbing costs now and hoping things change in the future,” he says. “We’re riding it out.”

In his 30 years in business, Silva says, he’s never seen costs so high. Prices for flour, cooking oil, dairy and other basic commodities have doubled in the past year, he says, and simple cuts of meats such as lamb shank have skyrocketed from $4 to $9 a pound.

Some are meeting the challenge by becoming master jugglers. At Crush 29 in Roseville, executive chef Irie Gengler has switched from flank steak to less-expensive shoulder blade for his Drunken Brandy Steak entrée, allowing patrons to enjoy the same size portion at the same price. Gengler calls this an example of “menu engineering.”

“You’re always out there looking at different products so you don’t have to pass the price increase on to the customers,” he says. Using local and seasonal ingredients also helps to keep costs down, he adds. “If it’s grown elsewhere—in Baja or Argentina—it costs a lot more to transport.”

Wendi Mentink, executive chef at Bidwell Street Bistro in Folsom, also bemoans the rising cost of transportation. “The prices I’m seeing the most consistently going up are produce and dry goods, and that’s because of the trucking,” she says. “Most people have a surcharge, and gas charges are so high.”

There has been no choice but to raise prices, Mentink says. During the past three years, prices have been bumped some 15 to 20 percent. New York strip steak and rack of lamb are two of the bistro’s best-known items, says Mentink—and unfortunately, both are pricey. “You don’t really want to change your concept, what you’re known for,” she says. “So you just try not to raise prices so much that you turn off your customers.” To balance things out, Mentink has made an effort to bring in less expensive cuts of meat, such as hamburger, short ribs and lamb shanks.

At Cafe Vinoteca in Sacramento, discussions about rising costs happen “every day,” according to executive chef Charlie Harrison. The restaurant’s proactive approach includes buying from local purveyors, finding less expensive sources for staples and reducing portion sizes—ever so slightly.

“Our portions were large to begin with, so we had room to scale back and still give people a substantial serving,” says Harrison. Veal scaloppine is now a 3½-ounce serving instead of 4; salmon is 5½ ounces instead of 6. This, asserts Harrison, is a better solution than jacking up menu prices. “We want our customers to keep coming back, so we want to keep things affordable,” he explains.

OK. So now that we know how restaurants are struggling, The Dollar-Wise Gourmet feels duty-bound to devote the next column to ways to support local businesses without going broke. But wait a minute: Isn’t that what we’ve been doing all along?

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