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Menu Pricing: Not a "Necessary Evil"

Written By Sauce on Side

We’re going to pull a Tarantino move here and give you the article you’re about to read in three simple concepts.

Costs of running a restaurant from every aspect have increased

Margins in the daily operations are significantly tight

Menu prices have to rise in order to not only succeed but survive.

There, now you don’t have to worry about reading the rest of the article.


When Kathleen Wynne announced the minimum wage increase in 2017, I felt the storm coming for local businesses, especially when it came to restaurants. As fair as it is to bring the minimum wages up for all, I felt that it wasn’t going to be an ideal situation for the industry. Unfortunately, that has become the reality.

At Algonquin College, we had a class where local Chefs would come in and talk to the aspiring graduates about what their food was about, impart some wisdom on to the youngins, and prepare us for the obstacles we have to face as a green cook making our way in this business. One Chef, in particular, talked about what it means to be a Chef/owner as well as the unexpected costs, people not finding their way into his seats, and other reasons which factored into his first place closing. As he was discussing these same struggles with his second place, it made me realize very quickly that opening a restaurant is the definition of a crapshoot. That conversation has always stuck with me.

10 years later and that conversation holds more weight now than ever. The landscape has changed and people are becoming quite concerned about how menu prices are being altered (and in this case increased) yet still, we as restaurants are identified in a negative light for making these adjustments. The reality is, they have to be made and must align with what’s happening during these times. For each position to earn what’s fair, menu prices have to increase because that is how a restaurant generates its revenue. There aren’t dozens of ways that a restaurant can make money. It’s either through food, alcohol, and/or renting out the building or designated areas for a private event. The guest is going to see inflation on menu prices because restaurants need to make adjustments of their own once they start seeing operating costs rise.

Working as a cook since I was 15 I can safely say I’m well versed in how a restaurant is structured and it gets a bit silly when, with all this happening, we still have “bloggers” out there who’ve never stepped foot on the line telling young cooks to not accept any offers less than $20-22 from independent Chef/Owners. Of course you ask for what you’re worth, but don’t go in thinking you’ll be making that kind of coin. It’s not going to happen when that’s not even what the Chefs make themselves and if we want to see everyone earning a decent wage then continuously questioning why menu prices are increasing has to stop.

There are plenty of adjustments that Chefs/Owners/Managers are making. Keeping a close eye on labour is huge. Prioritizing so that on slower nights staff get sent home early. Making sure that mise en place is done effectively so tasks aren’t taking much time to complete. There are constant changes being made to find cost-effective ways of doing things. Restaurants are quickly becoming hypersensitive to staffing strategies in order to keep costs affordable. More cooks are working 4-day weeks now, which is something that people who’ve been working in the industry for decades and have their “war stories” of 15-hour days 7 days a week could only have dreamt of (although don’t worry, I know there’s still some out there and I commend you). The reality is that the costs of maintaining a restaurant go with inflation. From the cleaning services (Ecolab), water, hydro, breakages and gas. All of these are costs that are reflected in your order of Lamb Shanks served with polenta.

Margins of running a restaurant are one of the smallest of any business, yet it’s sometimes expected for us to make all of these concessions. Free bottle of wine for an anniversary, free desserts for birthdays, and multiple other ways for a guest to receive something at little to no cost. We are in the business of constant variable costs. Recognition of menu price increases come with the territory. Local and independent restaurants don’t get the type of costs from suppliers that major chains and grocers do. It’s not out of the question to expect to find a better price on the cost of a striploin portion at Loblaws than what Chefs are able to get into their kitchen. Since grocers like Loblaws or major restaurant chains like Joey’s have such a stronghold on their buying power, they can get the same or similar product at the fraction of the cost. It’s also not as straightforward as comparing prices in our city to other major cities around the country given our landscape. We create menus based on the food in our area. That is why our food shouldn’t be compared to Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver.

People are now more conscious of what they eat in terms of sustainability–from organic produce, hook and line caught seafood and free-range chicken. Any good place you can find in Ottawa is using as much local product as they can. Chefs are held responsible for creating plates that focus as heavily on local and organic produce as they can and farmers are doing their part to charge a fair price to the restaurant. A 5kg order of carrots grown 30 minutes outside of the city will cost the equivalent as a 20kg bag of horse carrots (I’m calling them horse carrots cause they’re big-ass carrots that could feed a horse) that you could get from Sysco or GFS. That difference in price at a cost to the restaurant is reflected in the cost of the dish on the menu - as it should be. To expect higher quality products that are sustainable/organic and presented through the Chefs finished plate, menu pricing will be reflective of that.

Restaurants don’t want to shortchange their guests. They want the best they can produce because that’s the pride we take in our craft. When I wrote about having a passion for this career, it wasn’t a fluff piece. We want to use the best possible product we can and the guest deserves the best product because they are spending their hard earned money. I think it’s a little unfair to call this a “necessary evil”; it’s the way the world works. With time, comes change and in any business, you need to adapt and evolve. Whether that means redesigning menus with smaller portion sizes to maintain food costs, sourcing product from different suppliers or continuing to put out the best product and pricing it accordingly, we will see how restaurants choose to go. My hope is that these prices become less of a shock and people are more aware of what it means to run a successful restaurant both financially and in quality.  

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