I have heard plenty of grumbling over the years about the cost of food in Charleston, specifically the cost of "eating local." I get it. I too have complained about entrée prices, a $6 carton of eggs at the farmers market, and $12 cocktails. I too have stood in the produce section of my Harris Teeter debating over whether to purchase that little $8 clamshell of blueberries.
But something changed on a dusty early summer day this year when I visited an organic blueberry farm in pursuit of a story for another publication. To the soundtrack of Latin radio and cicadas, I saw pickers hand carting tub upon tub of berries to a little truck, then hand wash them, hand sort them, and watch over the only automatic part of the process — the filling of those plastic clamshells — before hand stacking them in the cooler to wait before being hand delivered to stores.
I know that quality food costs money, and it's no secret to anyone who knows me that I'm all about local, but I'm no eating-local saint. Food costs are my biggest line item, and not just the restaurant bills. However, until that day I'd never really thought about how — or more importantly why — organic, local blueberries cost exactly what they do.
So, why does "good food" cost so much?
First, we have to define what good food is. For our purposes, we're talking about local, sustainable, and fair food. Fruits and vegetables that don't have to be picked green in Guatemala then gassed in a warehouse somewhere to ripen before delivery. Animals that are allowed a modicum of existence before that existence ends. And people who are paid a living wage to manage all of this. Because management is what food is about, from tending and harvesting, to cooking and calculating. Food is alive, and we just step in on the process — picking weeds, adding nutrients, manipulating product — and try to put a number on all of that.
Here is a bit, by the numbers, of what I see in the space I am granted when I visit a kitchen or a farm. Real numbers are a part of the plate, and here are the people putting on the price tag.
"Year to date numbers in June were a 5 percent rate of return from our pigs," says David Gravelin, farmer and owner of Wishbone Heritage Farms in Ridgeville. "I work 20 hours a week on the pigs in just management time. That doesn't include the sales and marketing time, and one-third of my business is pork. When you work it out, I am certainly making less than minimum wage."
Gravelin currently has 65 head of pasture-raised Tamworth pigs, a heritage breed from Great Britain with excellent foraging skills and great tasting bacon after market. Once his pigs go to the processor, their hanging weight is around 300 pounds per hog, which will yield approximately 135 pounds of sausage or 250 pounds of different (whole bone-in) cuts of meat.
"Of course, we do as much bone-in as we can, but the hams go to sausage since we don't have them cured. We average about 225 pounds of sell-able product per animal, and that includes every bone we sell for soup as low as $1 a pound," he says. For Gravelin the goal is to use absolutely ever part of the animal. "We worked hard every day for nine months to give this animal a happy, healthy, natural life, and I have a responsibility to the farm, and to the animal, to make the most of that life. I feel that as a heavy responsibility," he explains.
But beyond responsibility sits the bottom line which must take into account the fact that Gravelin has to sit on the product (store it) for selling. That's 10 freezers at an electricity cost of $20 a month per freezer and the risk that one of them might go out.
"With feed, processing, and storing, there's at least $750 in each pig to bring it to the retail market," he explains. That does not include the cost of fencing, equipment, land, marketing, or any wage for Gravelin's time. That means he must charge an average of $3 to $5.56 per pound for Wishbone Heritage Farms pork just to break even, including a loss on all of those soup bones that go for $1 a pound.
This numbers man sells direct-to-consumer, putting weekly mileage on his truck hauling pork to the farmers market, and off-season, delivering direct to regular customers and at local farmers markets, anything to get the product in consumer hands and cash flowing back into Wishbone.
At this point in time, the numbers are all retail. Wishbone Heritage Farms does not sell any pork wholesale.
"I can't do any substantial wholesale or commercial discounts at this point and have the money to keep going," Gravelin says. "And restaurants can't afford to purchase our product at our price, but I can't sell it for any less."
"Our philosophy at EVO from day one, which is going on 11 years now, has always been to buy locally whenever possible," says Chef Matt McIntosh of EVO Pizza in North Charleston. "Buying locally means buying seasonally. As cooks, the seasons keep us in tune with our diverse food system and inspires our creativity. Some people get it and some don't. They say, 'Why spend the extra money for local when you can get it cheaper from a big name purveyor?' When buying local, we keep the dollars we spend in our communities. We help sustain our food system and our local economy, which in return sustains us."
The philosophy sounds good, but EVO makes a helluva pizza too, one that has garnered national press and made the Park Circle spot a destination restaurant. Chef Blake McCormick handles most of the day-to-day at EVO and pondering food costs is one of her main concerns.
"We don't use any big purveyors, no Sysco, no US Foods," she explains. "Limehouse [Produce] has upped the ante on their local offering, and a lot of the other farms are well-organized. So at the height of the growing season, we source 80 percent local, and in the winter that number drops to 15 to 20 percent." McCormick uses the seasons to build a product puzzle daily, stressing that the way she cooks is being inspired by the product that comes through the door.
EVO receives a daily delivery from Limehouse, and McCormick points out that she does things that make sense. "Local tomatoes for the tomato sauce just wouldn't make sense, so we buy cans of tomatoes from IGF and process them here. And I'm not going to buy something local just because it's local. Quality is first.
"Americans refuse to understand seasonality," she continues. "They want the farm experience with Walmart options, and that's just not possible with Mother Nature. Mother Nature is a beast."
For instance, McCormick praises the live hydroponic basil (root-ball included) she gets from Huger's Sweet Bay Farms. "Most of the basil grown outside is not good for us right now. It's dried out from the intense heat," McCormick says. EVO pays $10 a pound for basil, and each batch of pesto requires around 2 pounds of the herb, which works out to about 96 2-ounce portions. That comes out to each pesto portion running about 33 cents, which, of course, is not including the pine nuts, parmesan, or olive oil that go into the recipe — each portion a total cost of 45 cents. Add to that the fact that the labor cost to produce fresh pesto takes one skilled employee approximately one hour per batch. That pesto is currently used on three pizzas on the menu and offered as one of the make-your-own options.
Hand-crafted is the way at EVO, and the labor is divided fairly equally in the kitchen. All the kitchen staff rotate through the three stations: garde manger or cold station, pies, and oven. With dough made in-house and product streaming in from as many as six to seven purveyors at one time, labor needs to be skilled and confident since pizza is a fast-turn type of food. EVO is abuzz with activity at least 14 hours a day, if not more.
When compared to other chain pizza restaurants and local gourmet pizzerias, McCormick believes that EVO's prices are competitive. "Ours are $12 to $14. Yes, theirs is bigger, but it's not that much bigger, and what you are getting here is so much better in so many ways, for everyone, you included."
With leather-covered tables, intricate décor, high quality glassware, and a well-trained staff, it's a given that 492 is an upscale restaurant even before you sit down to Chef Nate Whiting's food.
The menu at 492 is designed to not be intimidating, and all the portions are meant to be appetizer-sized so you can develop your own tasting menu. But portion size is just the beginning — Whiting's food is gastronomic magic disguised as a simple tasting menu. Things get foamed, compressed, and transformed. This isn't your everyday food, but then again, that's not the restaurant's intent.
"Labor on our end is the biggest hidden consideration when it comes to food costs," Whiting says, his laptop open in front of him for reference. "Expensive ingredients typically provide the best value, and here, all ingredients have equal value and appreciation. There are no humble ingredients, and we treat everything respectfully. It's really an accumulation of details."
Whiting stresses that at 492 it is 60 percent ingredients, and 40 percent technique. "Some people might think that it's fussy, but I enjoy the discipline, and so does my team. I want to share what we work on," he says. "It's not a process that works for every kitchen, but it works for ours."
For something simple like chanterelle mushrooms, the labor is intense. There is a precise way 492 cleans mushrooms, rinsing them 15 to 17 times, then drying and trimming, and that's all before any cooking.
"Do you think a guest here wants to taste grit in the mushrooms? No one does, and we have a commitment to that level," Whiting says.
The kitchen has a 10-person staff on most days, and that's not including its executive chef. Prep is constantly a day ahead, and the super-high end kitchen includes all the bells and whistles — three circulators, a combi oven, a blast chiller, CVAP drawers, dehydrators, and high-powered blenders. That puts 492's kitchen at a price tag of $40,000, not including service and maintenance. And all that specialized equipment means specialized staff who know how to use it. Each position in the 492 kitchen (excepting dishwasher) requires around two-weeks of training. The result of all this? Whiting's Gigli pasta — a $15 plate that includes a 64-degree egg, those chanterelles, and cherry agrodolce.
"We love physics, but equipment will never replace intuition," Whiting says. "492 is modern and progressive, but it still needs to make sense. This stuff has to taste good, and I really, at the end of the day, want you to enjoy it."
For Whiting, food costs are a place he can nerd out. "Information is not knowledge, and food costs are about a weighted average, loss leaders, and taking into account really tricky things like labor, and the fact that at a place like this, you expect to have bottled sparkling water, for instance. And all these details we do at literally every phase of the process. How do we calculate this?" Whiting asks. "I want people to eat here, and there's only so much I can charge for a chicken breast, you know? We really respect the guest. We really respect the food, and that's what we are trying to do here, to give you something special."
All of the culinary professionals quoted in this article pointed to the fact that there are people out there less than honest when they use the term "local." Why? In Charleston you can charge more because you have educated eaters who are looking to support local. This sentiment seems to be city wide, both on menus and at area farmers markets. Whiting wouldn't name names, but for some label-slappers, local is a money-making trend.
"I know some chefs that have lower moral standards and will say something is local when it isn't," Whiting says. "It's hard to tell because they are really good cooks, but it hurts all of us."
It comes down to trust. And that's also a hidden cost of food — trust that the animal was humanely raised and killed, trust that the farmer is growing locally what they say they're growing locally, and trust that the chefs that make the meals are buying from whom they say they are. Finally there's the trust of the consumers who just want to know where their food comes from.