Negotiating with vendors
For owners, haggling with distributors is nothing new, but some are making it an art form as they angle for every possible discount.
Merrin, like others, said his restaurant has been tougher with its food vendors and distributors, working out deals for months in advance or accepting fewer deliveries while buying more. Jammet said Sweetgreen also signs price contracts with farmers for their orders.
Marcus Giuliano, who owns the health-food restaurant Aroma Thyme Bistro in Ellenville, N.Y., said he wanted to upgrade to organic coconut milk from conventional, but coconut prices were skyrocketing. Rather than go to the wholesale company, he approached his broker and asked if there was anything they could do.
“She set up an ongoing discount with the wholesale vendor,” he said. “The brokers are the ones that sometimes have flexibility.”
Although it’s the most obvious solution, independent restaurateurs tend to be cautious about raising menu prices, said the National Restaurant Association’s vice president for research, Hudson Riehle.
“Consumers are sensitive to price increases,” he said. “The decision to raise prices is not taken lightly. Grocery store prices are running at more than double the rate of menu price increases.”
Several restaurant chains surveyed by the National Restaurant Association, including the Cheesecake Factory and Texas Roadhouse, said they plan to increase prices modestly this year. Previously, independent restaurants had to resist doing so, Cannon said, because any fluctuations in their pricing would send customers fleeing to the marginally cheaper national chains. But now that even mainstays like Starbucks are charging more, smaller shops may start to do so, as well.
Merrin, from Havana Central, said that he’s raised prices about 3.5 percent in the past six months, and he might again this year. His margins have also taken a slight hit, but he said that as far as a restaurateur’s myriad problems go, food prices are a problem he can soldier through.
“We do more with chicken thighs than beef. We do less with cheese and more with vegetables,” he said. “It’s difficult, it requires time and effort, but compared to a recession where people just don’t walk in the door, this is an easier problem to manage.”
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