For some restaurants, however, raising prices is simply not viable. For Balfe, it wouldn’t have worked at Salon, given its location. “You can only charge so much for a meal if you're in a slightly rustic Brixton market location. If you saw a tasting menu for 100 quid a head, you'd think, ‘what the hell is this?'"
Over at Michelin-starred Cornerstone in Hackney, chef Tom Brown has been faced with a similar dilemma. “I’m really conscious of trying not to alienate people, as we’re going through the same thing and we’re all experiencing the cost-of-living crisis together. I would prefer to rework the menu rather than raise menu prices extortionately,” he says.
For Brown, an immediate action has been to swap out some of the more expensive ingredients on the menu at his fish-focused restaurant. That means, currently, losing scallops, cod, John Dory, and even mackerel, and adding in mussels, and chalk stream trout instead of salmon in Cornerstone’s signature fish pastrami.
“At the end of the day, fishermen have to charge what they have to charge and as a group of people that are regularly undervalued and underpaid, and are doing dangerous work each day to bring us the beautiful produce we use in the restaurant, I won’t argue with them,” he says.
Of course, it’s not just the UK where this is happening. It’s been reported that over at Parachute restaurant in Chicago for example, the owners are even taking their signature dish off the menu because it no longer makes financial sense – a huge deal for any restaurant.
One of the hopefully lasting consequences of the pandemic is that there is a deeper bond between restaurants and their customers, and a greater understanding among diners of what it really costs to run a restaurant, both financially and emotionally. But Brown isn’t expecting sympathy.
“I really don’t think it’s the diners’ responsibility to be understanding, at the end of the day we’re not a charity and we’re still charging them money to eat our food. We might adapt our menus, swap some ingredients, but we need to still be providing the best we can serving the same standard of dishes. They are there to order the food, eat it, get the bill and make the decision as to whether it’s worth the money or not.”
For Balfe, diners still need to be better educated about what it actually costs to get good food onto the plate.
“Across the board, restaurants are putting their prices up, and I think guests are getting their heads around that, but I still think there's a little bit of work to be done to educate guests on why a meal costs what it costs. Yes, you can go to a supermarket and get a steak for a fiver. But gram for gram that same cut of meat, in our case certainly from an independent farmer who's hopefully using good farming husbandry principles, could cost you 30, 35, 40 quid. And the reasoning for that is ultimately because of fixed costs and overheads.”
Tom Brown. Photo by @lateef.photography
With seemingly no end in sight to the various economic pressures we’re all facing - not just those who run restaurants - there are a few things that we can say with almost certainty: we will lose more restaurants, fine dining will become even more exclusive and we will all have less money in our pockets.
There also seems to be a lack of understanding on behalf of policy makers about what it costs to get good food onto the plate, and where the blame lies for the cost-of-living crisis. A new campaign by the UK government urging business to slash prices has been widely criticised in the hospitality sector.
“It’s quite scary, to be honest. It looks like we’re on the path to recession and it’s pretty terrifying,” says Brown. “I hope the government will see sense and will keep tabs on the big companies making massive profits. It is a worrying time in a restaurant, especially one that is usually so busy and is now slightly quieter.”
Balfe senses that the industry may need to pool together to get through this. Indeed it’s something we’re already seeing, with the likes of chefs Tommy Banks and Paul Ainsworth launching a staff-swap initiative between their UK restaurants. And of course an upshot could also be restaurants becoming more self-sufficient and sustainable. “Investing now in the infrastructure for things like growing their own produce or reducing their supply chains or repurposing food waste into biofuels,” says Balfe.
“I can see lots of businesses perhaps with more of a collective approach to manage the spiralling costs,” he says. “And I wonder if there might be some kind of collective approach to the staffing situation because I don't see that changing drastically in the near future. All are things we're looking at across our group.”