I know that customers don't want to pay £40 for a tasting menu.But when we cost food up in a restaurant, yes, we make three times as much as the ingredients costs us, but after having paid for all the staff and the rent, a lot of us don't break even.When people complain about the prices at Sager + Wilde [the author's restaurant in Bethnal Green, London], it happens because their expectations are not managed properly. We're offering something that we believe is right: produce that comes only from London and its surrounding area.
We work with people that the supermarkets can't buy from because the producers don't have the quantity. We also use produce that's hyper-seasonal and our menu changes every week. It's not OK to buy basil that was grown in a greenhouse in Spain—the transport cost and carbon footprint is not right.But it's hard to make people believe that when you can get a meal in McDonald's for £4.For the last five years in the UK, we've found that the only successful thing outside of mega fine dining has been junk food, dude food, and greasy stuff. When we first opened in 2013, there was an American influx of—essentially—premium junk food at fucking high margins. Of course your sourdough pizza is only going to be £8 because what goes into it costs £1.20. They're making a 90 percent mark-up on that product whereas we're clocking in at 60 percent.It's also a vocabulary issue. The moment that someone is familiar with what you're doing, it's easier to sell. If you're doing burgers and lobster or burgers and milkshakes or that kind of bollocks, people understand it.This year, they're saying the next big thing is Turkish, meze, and mangal food. Whether you have a kebab cooked by a top chef or in your corner shop, it's still a kebab. It still costs very little to make.It's formulaic. It's the moment you see Pret a Manger doing a fake exposed brick wall—you know the 3 millimetre-thick wall panelling, and exposed bulbs? You can fill a restaurant right away if you decorate it like that.
It's like with perfume. I never used to buy perfume and I started a year ago. I only bought three scents but I made sure that I was going into the shop, smelling all of them. I went to Liberty's and I made sure that what I was buying wasn't something you could get on the high street, so it was special. And yes, it came at a £20 extra premium but you don't need to put that much on and it lasts longer for the money than shit perfume. But most people are happy to buy and take what's in front of them and smell like every other person.It's the same with food.
I can't blame these people or say they're wrong. I can't expect people to know about the scams or the narrative behind lower cost food. All I can do is just continue to be honest about what we're doing and why that should be worth the price and recognition.Everyone is struggling. It's indicative of London. In a quest to save money myself last month, I finally started to cook at home again. You still end up spending £15 to £20 for something halfway decent. You have to spend an hour to get it, which costs a tenner (I always think time is money), because you have to go out and get the food and then do the washing up. Let's assume it's one and a half hours spent with an average income and already, it adds up. But I'm not going to get heart disease at the age of 38.
Of course your sourdough pizza is only going to be £8 because what goes into it costs £1.20. They're making a 90 percent mark up on that product.
I hope better attitudes towards food spread. Once people become more aware of the carbon footprint behind food production and the impact of processed carbs on their body—or processed anything for that matter—they might start waking up.As a restaurant, you have to make a stance and say: "I am not fine any more with buying food that is modified, not seasonal, and comes from abroad." That's the stance we take as a restaurant and in return, I'm happy to lose custom and hang in there for the long run, but do it with integrity.If you want to please everyone, you're fighting something bigger—you're fighting McDonald's. Good luck.As told to Daisy Meager.Michael Sager moved to London from Switzerland ten years ago and set up wine bar Sager + Wilde in August 2013, followed by restaurant of the same name a year later. Both establishments are known for their use of seasonal produce and lesser known, global wines.
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