As a member of the greater customer service field, one of the most simultaneously entertaining and frustrating activities in which I participate is the occasional reading of online reviews. At Foodshed we have been lucky enough to receive an overwhelmingly positive response on Yelp and whatnot, and while there are always gems within the friendly missives, it’s the occasional negative where the fun really starts.
To be honest, it would probably be better for my overall mental health to just avoid these online forums altogether, though I do admit there can be lessons culled from these pseudo-anonymous postings.
Because there is truth in what people write. And while some customers might enjoy the enthusiasm and wealth of (mostly) factual information offered by one particularly gregarious employee, others might find that same experience to be off-putting and overwhelming, when all they want to do is read a menu and not interact with a human.
But my favorites, which, naturally, are the sources of the greatest frustrations and head-banging on my part, are the authoritative statements grounded in a context completely devoid of reality or understanding. For example, the reviewer who claimed to enjoy the food for the most part, but stated that “It really shouldn’t cost that much.”
Value. How do we assign value to food? I do want to take a second to address why I’m framing this discussion in the context of online reviews, rather than, I don’t know, numbers and statistics? Because ultimately the public perception of cost and value of a particular good is what is important. It is what they believe they are getting for their money, not what they are actually getting.
But at the same time, you can’t ignore the numbers. You can’t ignore the fact that even your simple slice of pizza came from over 24 hours of labor because we make the dough and we make the pepperoni and we hand-pull the burrata and we slice and roast our own fennel and onions and we aren’t just opening up plastic bags and dumping ingredients on your pizza.
What this means, of course, is that we are serving you real food. So you can’t look at our slice of pepperoni and make a cost comparison to a similarly sized slice of pepperoni from a different pizza joint. Because even if you can’t taste the difference (which I firmly believe most people can, but appreciate that some people can’t or don’t care to), the fact remains that you are choosing to give us your business. You are choosing to support our model. And our model means buying tomatoes directly from the farm up the road instead of getting twice the amount for half the price from Sysco.
But I’m getting off track. I wanted to frame this in terms of public perception, because you cannot expect customers to know or care about the math that leads to us charging a price that some might deem to be to much, but which we actually believe sells ourselves short.
So how do we do that? How do we let people know that it is okay to spend $6 on a generously sized piece of pizza that will more than satisfy the average meal craving, and which is made with a long-fermented dough (easier on the gut!) and topped with real (non-plastic based) cheese? Or $5 on an 8oz container of farro with fresh sweet corn and shelled cranberry beans and oh so much flavor and happiness?
It is so hard. It is so hard to not just lay down the math on them. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we should. Maybe I should make a giant flowchart showing where our ingredients come from, what we pay for them, how much labor is involved in the preparation, and how all that adds up to a very reasonable amount for a very delicious and filling meal. Is that it? But then where would I even begin? Because those delicious tomatoes we’re getting from that farmer nearby cost what they do for several reasons, not least of which is that the land itself on which they are grown is some of the most expensive agricultural land in the country. So do we include that information? And then do we have to explain why the land is so expensive (ahem Napa Valley cab)? And why we choose to buy from them instead of somewhere else that might still qualify as “local” and certainly grows delicious tomatoes and might charge a little less because they’re only on the second most expensive ag land in the nation?
Restaurants are an integral part of a community. All businesses are. Whether they are small and family owned or massive corporations, all businesses form a part of the character of a given community. And part of our character is a certain philosophy. And that philosophy is evident in the way we conduct business across all levels of the restaurant. We are part of a community, we are part of the Napa community, which is particularly agriculturally and hospitality driven, and we make business decisions based on the idea that we can play a role in continuing to make this community thrive. So we buy local, not because local is inherently better (that’s a whole other blog post…), but because there are local farmers who are farming good food in a good way and if we support them, they support us, and both businesses succeed. And we have an internship program, because this community has a plethora of restaurants and a dearth of skilled kitchen labor. And so we offer an opportunity for aspiring chefs and others who are looking to build skills and potentially enter the restaurant industry to do just that. Because when the labor pool is stronger the restaurants are stronger and once again, we all succeed.
But these decisions aren’t cheap. And they can occasionally add up to more than what you think you should pay for a particular item. But should is a tricky word. Food – and costs – don’t exist in a vacuum. And food, overall, is cheaper now than it has ever been in history and cheaper here than it is anywhere else in the world.
I know I’m never going to convince everyone of the value of our food. That was never my intent. It is without a doubt impossible to create a restaurant that serves everyone’s taste and everyone’s wallets and everyone’s personalities. But, for every comment on our food costing too much, there are usually three defending the prices and acknowledging the quality and value. Because we are part of a community, and the community is beginning to recognize our role, and our philosophy, and our purpose, and the deliciousness of our food.