Cheaper to Eat Out....

It used to be a sign of American plenty that people went out for breakfast. I remember my shock the first time I did so with a family with whom I am very friendly in Baltimore, years ago, at how cheap it was to order ham and eggs, and, moreover, that you could just hold out a cup and get a coffee refill.

Late last year, Forbes magazine in the United States took notice of a curious social phenomenon. As the Great Recession rolls on--and it is such for the twenty six million or so who are either without a job, trapped in part time work, or 'discouraged' as much as for those drowning in debt--restaurants and bars are doing great business. Eating out is becoming a way to save money. This was attributed to the 6% rise per year in supermarket prices, a consequence of oil and food booms which are manifesting in odd ways around the world.

Households can't practice economies of scale, lowering spending to an average, in the way that restaurants can. Time is precious, energy is expensive and lots of people just can't be bothered cooking, especially with the cost of marginal but important things like sauces, butter and spices rising quickly. In addition, great inequality in income produces a need for what the economists call inferior goods--the sort of high-calorie-hit, cheap and cheerful things that you wouldn't eat if you had the money and inclination to, say, make a salad or grill tofu.

I saw the phenomenon in Britain at close hand when I spent time with my family over Christmas. A Harvester 'All you can eat' breakfast, in what is admittedly a much nicer setting than most kitchens, costs £3.99 for 550 calories, £5.99 for 760 with unlimited tea and toast. It's a menu made for fuel poverty really, since the cheapest loaf of bread is around 85p, and bacon alone would set you back around £2. At Wetherspoons, a cash-strapped pensioner could get a whole breakfast and a few hours' warmth for that. For the pubs, the marginal cost of opening is low--the workers aren't paid much, or are on a salary, or they're students or immigrants making a buck--and kitchens are normally open anyway to get ready for the day. It's mostly self-service, anyway. I used to eat in places like that in Oxford when I didn't fancy the JCR or Hall, but they weren't a mainstream option--you didn't see whole families or vast crowds of pensioners in Littlewoods or McDonalds of a morning. Now you do, in the equivalents.

It's not just breakfast. When I was buying a drink at the bar one evening, I looked over the menu and saw just how tailored the Sunday roasts, Christmas meals, and various 'celebratory' refreshments were to a society that just doesn't or can't cook anymore. Apparently, the food houses are packed out, regularly, and at the prices offered I can't blame anyone. What this all does, of course, is undermine real restaurants even more, which may be no bad thing if you think that British service was traditionally dodgy and that there should be simply an elite class of eateries and places which sold at minimum efficient scale goods that were good enough to attract no complaint. Le Gavroche or Harvester; the choice oddly parallels the jobs market, with a salaried, privileged experience for some, or a sort of perfectly enjoyable plastic cruise for others.

The settings are oddly communal, and I welcomed them, but what strikes me most is how odd the twentieth century was. It's an oft-quoted statistic that, for around twenty years from 1955, a manual worker could support a family of three, a new car every year, and home-cooked food every night with a roast on Sundays, plus a yearly holiday, on one wage. He could also, if his children were bright, see them given a good education at grammar school which was better than most private schools. If that didn't work, good apprenticeships were available, though the majority of secondary moderns were not places to be brought up in. The girls and women, of course, would be married off or stuck, if they couldn't escape, though only a few rebelled.

That's gone, but with each year we seem to accept more of the loss and make the most of it; now, the ability to shut your door and cook some home food is becoming a privilege or a treat, or a consequence of some enforced immobility rather than a right. In some ways, the Harvesters are better; at least I got to see my family and chat, without people worrying about cooking and cleaning afterward. You also couldn't imagine some working-class horror story like Spring and Port Wine playing out there either. Could these places actually be a sign that families, in all their modern diversity, were actually clawing out space to be together, just not in the homes they were shelling out mortgages for? Or is it that future divisions will be between those who could eat well at home, which I suppose depends upon education in cooking, and those who dined out?

We panic about obesity and illnesses associated with eating, but we never really look around us. Food is political. Large numbers of Americans are fat because Iowa caucuses get corn syrup onto the subsidy chain, and because they can't afford good food, and because they're time-poor or want to escape a bit for breakfast. Here, people who work like mad, with two parents and often a teenager working and just making ends meet, students, pensioners, and the curious are all coming together to eat food that tastes great but large doses of which are heartstoppers. The breakfast table, the pantry, and the smell of cooking to wake a person up are things to get away from, are treats, and we're becoming desensitised to what it is we are actually getting since we don't even see it raw.

Is that a bad thing, or just a precursor of what will happen when oil prices and redundancies really hit home, and all we have to comfort us are the pub chain oligopolies--and Nigella on the TV, telling us all to look for pickled things in the pantry?


Many good points raised in your post Martin. One additional comment - in the USA and Europe there are large centralized distribution systems and mass scale. Fifty years everything was much more local and seasonal. Today we have fresh strawberries and blueberries year round albeit shipped in from Latin America. These changes have also caused food to be controlled by global oligopolies and as just another commodity rather than a core cultural and nutritional staple of the family. God bless, Patrick
Edward Spalton said…
When I started commercial travelling for our family business in the Sixties, the choice of eating places was very limited.
Pubs, by and large, didn't do food although they might stretch to a pickled egg or cheese sandwich. My father always recommended sticking to cheese - it wouldn't go off like the ham!

There were "greasy spoon" type caffs, nicer tea rooms in touristy areas - often rather twee and usually called "The Copper Kettle" or something similar.

Then there were restaurants, mostly in hotels where the food was expensive, pretentious,, pretty awful and the service could range from the slap dash to the condescending.

And there were Chinese restaurants which seemed to offer the same "Businessman's lunch" wherever you were in the country - some sort of gluey soup, curry or chicken chow mein and banana fritters or ice cream for dessert. They were good value. Prices ranged from 4/6 (22.5p) to 7/6 (37.5p) according to locality and salubriousness.

Then things like Berni Inns started to appear with prawn cocktail for starters and steak as a main course - more for evenings out than lunch time.

I am continually amazed at the success of McDonalds. They always seem to be busy with a mixed clientele, ranging from children's birthday parties to businessmen in suits. I think they are very careful where they site them. By repute, the company has made more millionaires from the ranks of its franchisees than any other.
Martin Meenagh said…
Some of those oligopolies were much strengthened by the debt slavery Africa was in for so long. States, to pay off debt, had to centralise production and accept economy-of-scale monopoly deals to get materials to Europe.Nowadays, of course, they're much freer of debt, but the Koreans, Chinese and Indians have taken to buying their porducts and a good deal of their fertile land directly--Lord knows where that will lead, though Madagascar's revolutionary coup may be a good indicator.
Hope all is well with you, all the best, M
Martin Meenagh said…
Some of those greasy spoons are still around Edward--the one next to the Temple tube station, for instance, does a thriving trade, presumably because most Barristers are conservative, unhealthy and skint. But I recall once chatting with a priest who had been on the missions, who said that wherever in the world he was, he always knew that MacDonalds would be clean. Once in a while--a very long while--they're not bad either. They too, though, now seem cheaper than home burgers. It's the lesser part of £2, whereas the (very tasty) Sainsbury's burgers and baps which we had on a whim the other night cost around a fiver.
Toni said…
As a single man with terrible cooking skills it is far easier and cheaper for me to go for a quick lunch at the Harvester or Dinner at the local Chinese that go and do a weeks shopping at Waitrose, the nearest supermarket. Of course back in the day when I was even more up myself I wouldnt be seen dead in a Harvester and, by the way, the set lunch at La Gavroche is still one of the best deals in London - just be careful with the wine list. At least I always eat all my food in a restaurant while most of my shopping ends up being thrown out so I suppose thats environmentally friendly.

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