The recent price shaming in the media regarding the price of food in Ireland, particularly in restaurants, is nothing short of hypocritical and ridiculous.
Why do we feel we all know the price of food in Ireland? The debate occurs entirely on the surface of the issue and does not consider any of the mitigating circumstances that actually make food expensive, in particular its context. The energy crisis is still in full swing and electricity costs have trebled if not quadrupled. Wages inflation, due to Covid and a number of increases in the minimum wage, have forced restaurants to raise their prices in order to stay afloat. Perhaps the greatest insult to those in the food industry is the accusation of price gouging and profiteering.
Is this not how the western world operates? Designer sunglasses, for example, are marked up between 800 per cent to 1,000 per cent. I see no article condemning this practice or an appeal to readers to list all the times they’ve been ripped off when purchasing them. I could use other examples, from smartphones to sports clothing. Food in the restaurant industry is marked up anywhere for 50 per cent to 75 per cent, yet restaurants are accused of ripping the customer off. This does not make sense.
The return on investment in food in Ireland is next to nothing. This is the reason why many restaurants close or fail to make any sustainable operating profit. If we really want to think seriously about the cost of food we need to look into the factors that make food expensive. Some of these are rent (much greater in Dublin), energy and wages. With regards to wages, I am a firm advocate of paying people properly. However, if the minimum wage continues to rise (alongside paid sick days) then food will continue to get more expensive. This is a sure thing, so it pains me when the media shame restaurants for overcharging on the one hand, and then rail against inadequate wages in the industry.
Furthermore, what is overcharging? Is not the role of business to make a profit and survive? Is that not the current model? I may not like it. I may want to spend whatever I want on the best produce and pay my staff a fair wage but I, and others, are constrained by the system of capitalism. The primary price of food (what you pay the producer) and its end point (what I charge in the restaurant) has become uncoupled and often has no relationship to each other. This is because the cost of everything in between has spiralled. There are so many hidden costs, for example, from insurance to council rates, that have to be paid. Any diatribe on the current VAT rate in relation to restaurants is simply misguided as it doesn’t take in account the huge increase in costs since the pandemic.
Often I believe we do not value food enough in Ireland to pay an adequate price for it. The narrative that surrounds food in Ireland is around cheapness. The supermarkets promote this angle at every possible turn. We need greater transparency around food in Ireland and how much is profit is reasonable if you find yourself in the food business. Rather than price or profit shaming, we need a national conversation that includes more than just the food industry.
I have worked in the restaurant industry since I was 15 and have owned and run restaurants for the last 15 years. I understand the difficulties, the trials, and tribulations. But I am not in this industry to either make a quick profit of gouge customers. I am in the business of making food and providing hospitality. Food is an experience. The cost is for that experience, not just the food you see in front of you.
We need to support our farmers and staff by paying them more than we currently do. But to do this, the price of food has to go up even more. Is this possible in Ireland? I don’t know, but I will endeavour to keep trying to provide great food experiences to the people who come to my restaurants.
JP McMahon is a chef and restaurateur. He is chef-patron of Aniar and Cava Bodega in Galway