Restaurants Deal With Rising Food Costs

Photo: Steve Manning, Cheeseboard Collective worker, sets aside freshly baked pizzas. He says that the price of wheat increased three-fold since last year.
Nathan Yan/Staff
Steve Manning, Cheeseboard Collective worker, sets aside freshly baked pizzas. He says that the price of wheat increased three-fold since last year.

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The soaring cost of food worldwide has forced many Berkeley restaurants to raise their menu prices, leaving business owners feeling uncertain about how customers will react to continued price increases.

During recent months, local restaurants have looked for ways to cut costs and to adapt to significant increases in the costs of staple foods such as wheat, corn and rice.

Michael Caplan, the city of Berkeley's manager of economic development, said the rising costs of ingredients has come up frequently in recent conversations with local restaurant owners.

"(Businesses) are trying to hold the line on prices as best they can, but for most there's no choice but to pass some of those costs through," Caplan said.

Some restaurant owners said customers have been understanding about the higher menu prices. Cathy Goldsmith, community liaison for the Cheeseboard Collective in North Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, said Cheeseboard customers have reported they would prefer the restaurant maintain the quality of the food and understand that to accommodate quality, prices must go up.

"Almost across the board people understood," Goldsmith said. "They were expecting it, because it's been in the newspapers and in the headlines. It's been the easiest time to raise prices."

Goldsmith said the cost of the flour Cheeseboard uses in its pizzas and baked goods has increased by 75 percent and corn costs have gone up by 50 percent.

But Sal Naser, co-owner of Durant Avenue's popular eatery La Burrita, said he is feeling pressure to keep menu prices low because his customers are primarily UC Berkeley students.

"I think our prices are reasonable, but I don't know what the future will be," Naser said. "In six months we might have to raise our prices by 10 percent or so just to keep up with the increased cost of food, because you don't want to compromise your product. Customers are very smart, they notice that."

Naser said one way restaurants can keep costs down is by buying food supplies in bulk in order to get a discount from wholesale vendors.

But Adagia Restaurant's Executive Chef Omri Aronow said purchasing from local, sustainable farmers is the long-term solution to keeping costs low, in part because the prices of locally produced food are significantly less affected by the skyrocketing costs of gas and transportation.

He also said he believes that unless businesses modify their purchasing strategies, the cycle of rising gas prices and food prices will continue.

"You have to focus locally on what people are doing right here, right now, rather than getting large quantities of food that is not in season and expands the use of fossil fuels," Aronow said. "If you can't get it locally and seasonally, don't use it."

Thomas Spivey, associate director of the ASUC Auxiliary and overseer of restaurants in the Bear's Lair, also said fuel costs and food shortages caused by undesirable weather conditions are significant contributing factors to rising food costs.

"There was a rice shortage last spring-the produce prices have gotten very expensive," Spivey said. "Even in the Bear's Lair Brewpub, the grain and hops prices have gone up because of crop failures."

Though Spivey said he is unsure of how students will react to the increased prices on the menus in the Bear's Lair restaurants, he said he thinks customers probably expect it.

"It's hard to tell now because the spring semester has ended; I think the fall will be a litmus test, we'll have a better idea then," Spivey said.

One way rising food costs could be combatted is by increasing the global food supply, said UC Berkeley professor of agriculture and resource economics David Zilberman. He said food productivity could be enhanced by investing in new technology such as GMOs-genetically modified organisms.

"We need to enhance productivity, to reduce regulations, and to develop some sort of mechanism that will ensure people will have food when we have shortages. We need to improve our inventories," Zilberman said.


Contact Hadas Goshen at [email protected]

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