Why Do We Pay So Much For Breakfast Food?

Every Sunday it’s the same, whether you’re in Atlanta (where I used to live) or New York (where I live now): people wait an hour to pay too much money for breakfast food. Sunday Brunch is a ritual–an excuse to see old friends, to get out of your borough, to eat cake and call it nourishment. This Sunday I made Craig trek up to Sarabeth’s Kitchen on Central Park South so I could enjoy the pumpkin waffle:

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It costs $14. That’s an outrageous amount of money to pay for a can of pumpkin mixed with flour and egg and sugar and plopped into a waffle iron, flipped on to a plate and topped with sour cream and honey and pumpkin seeds and strawberries. But it’s an indulgence that seems to be worth indulging in. We know we can probably make brunch food at home (and investing in a waffle iron could probably save you a fortune for all the waffles you wouldn’t have to order on Sunday mornings) but that’s not the point. The point of brunch is that it’s social, it’s communal: when you stand with the crowd on Central Park South waiting to savor the sweetness of syrup and pastry and strong bitter coffee, you feel like you’re part of the world. And after you’re seated and your food comes and it starts to rain you join everyone in laughing and running inside; or, if you’re Craig, you continue to eat:

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Today, though, I had the opportunity to return to Eli Zabar’s E.A.T. on the Upper East Side. This place always makes my jaw drop with its prices. I think it’s criminal that Eli charges $18–EIGHTEEN DOLLARS–for scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. True you get his famous bread with that but my God, man, how can you charge that much for so little and still show your face? Smoked fish was born out of poverty: it’s a poor man’s food. Eggs are plentiful and cheap. There can’t be a logical reason to charge so much except for the most obvious reason: you CAN. Eli caters to the Upper East Side crowd and they literally e.a.t. it up. I don’t know why I’ve been back three times now: every time when the check comes I am outraged but I keep going back. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the few decent places to eat near the museums. Or maybe it’s because Eli’s good friends with The Barefoot Contessa and I have a soft spot in my heart for her. Or, most likely, maybe we’re all under a spell when it comes to breakfast food: maybe we were all hypnotized by an evil breakfast spirit at birth who compels us to spend too much on food that costs the restaurant very little. Breakfast is a brilliant racket and the only way to dismantle it is to make breakfast at home. And during the week it’s easy to do this but on Sunday–oh, Sunday–it’s almost impossible to avoid going to brunch. So why fight it? Most people don’t. I don’t. And that’s why Sarabeth and Eli are laughing all the way to the bank.

52 comments

  1. On the same token, I have always been shocked at how much a box of breakfast cereal costs at the grocery store. I think they get away with murder on that,too. But compared to breakfast out in NYC, it is a bargain! beth

  2. Up here in Sarnia, Ontario is a greasy little spoon called Johns, It’s been open forever. I think that greasy little spoons are the best places to have Sunday breakfast in! Johns has been a riutal for MANY people around here. They serve breakfast all day and you can enjoy eggs, canadian bacon, the best has hashbrowns, toast and coffee/tea/whatever, for well under $10.00 – and there is no comparision anywhere. Every place I go – I compare it to Johns.

  3. The kid’s unemployed, living in Park Slope, eating waffles on Central Park South, smoked salmon on the Upper East Side….and complaining about the cost.

    ‘Nuff said.

  4. you know, maybe Eli’s uses organic eggs from humanely raised chickens and organic salmon smoked in a special way. and if that’s the case, we should all be thankful for the opportunity to eat sustainable food. thank goodness!

    your other notion is probably more correct though. the demand for the supply is high, therefore the high prices. as for the smoked salmon, it seems to be sorta pricey even in a grocery store. it just seems like one of those things that doesn’t come in commercial abundance, thus always carries a semi-high price tag.

  5. so I thought that salmon was neither organic or conventional….it is ‘farm-raised’ with “color added” or it is “wild”

  6. um…just sayin’, but maybe eli needs to pay for the space (which ain’t cheap), the electric, the staff, the loss, etc…

    it’s kind of sad that the expectation of the consumer is that restos in manahattan should be artificially low compared to their monthlies.

  7. Adam, try Patois on Smith St. in Boerum Hill. $12 for a great brunch (I recommend duck confit hash with poached eggs), including unlimited coffee, virgin bloody marys, and real mimosas. Plus, the bread basket is good, and there’s a beautiful garden in the back.

  8. Pumpkin waffles! They look so good! And they have inspired me. I just made some pumpkin-walnut bread, but still have some extra pumpkin.

    I’ve been wondering what to do with it.

    Well, I actually do have a waffle iron and haven’t used it in a year or so. I’m going to improvise some pumpkin waffles!

  9. If you want to trek out to LI (I know – not going to happen), go to Maureen’s Kitchen in Smithtown. The prices are great and the food is awesome. I had their apple cider pancakes last weekend and now I’m trying to figure out how to replicate the receipe at home.

  10. I don’t get it either. In one breath you’re enjoying the tasting menus and wine pairings at the most expensive restaurants imaginable. Then you are talking to us about the price of breakfast…a whole whopping $18. I read your blog, but to be honest you’re getting on my nerves. If you are trying to relate to your reader and posting these cheesy comments to dupe us, it really feels fake to me. If anything, you’re reader would be able to go and spend $18 on breakfast at some cool place, whereas would never really be seated at Per Se. So like, get real Adam.

  11. the thing that boggles my mind about breakfast/brunch is why people wait for it.

    have you ever seen the lines outside Clinton St Baking Co. or Prune on a Saturday??

    it’s like, seriously people, WTF?

    it’s eggs and pancakes, and they’re not even all that good to begin with… (but then again, i hate breakfast food to no end)

    boggles my mind to the nth degree.

  12. My parents do indeed pay when we go to fine dining places. They come for a few weeks every year and you can tell when they’re here because that’s when I usually write up a fancy meal. Otherwise, I pay for my own meals with money I make myself. I also pay my rent, my electric bill, my cable bill and everything else–so unless my readers know more about my financial situation than I do, I don’t really understand the hostility. I think charging $18 for scrambled eggs is too much and I’d feel that way no matter who was paying.

  13. I guess that was my point — he’s coming off as being disingenuous. The post last week about tipping 50 cents vs a buck for coffee also rubbed me wrong. Frankly, I think what started off as an entertaining blog way back when in Atlanta has turned into something completely inauthentic. He’s a dilettante and needs to drop the “man of the people” BS.

  14. Oh, wow. I knew I was spoilt rotten in Portland, OR in regards to brunch, but WOWWEE!

    (Salmon hash at the Doug Fir on Sundays costs me $8. It’s considered expensive for Portland, and is as big as my head AND tastes like heaven, plus if you sit at the bar like I do, you get to watch the Server and Bartender Life Drama Show.)

  15. The hostility is coming from a perceived schism between your words and your actions. Unless blogging pays a lot more than I think it does (which it very well may), or that first-time writers of unpublished books get very large advances, I’m not sure I buy that you support yourself entirely. And, if you truly do, that’s a very recent development.

    Not that it’s any of your readers’ business, of course, but if you put parts of your life out there and the pieces don’t add up to some — don’t be surprised there are reactions.

  16. The advance for my book is about a year’s salary. So I am living off that and luckily I am making quite a bit of money from ads. So I hope that helps close the schism between my words and my actions. TAG

  17. Congrats. Now I guess you’re doing well enough to take down the link on your site asking readers to buy you necessities — such as $220 cookbooks.

  18. I don’t think that’s necessary. Most of the bloggers I read have Amazon wishlists regardless of their financial situations. I think it’s interesting to browse through their wishlists and I assume others might want to browse through mine. And if someone feels compelled to buy me a book, why not? Are you not allowed to receive gifts if you’re financially self-sufficient? I think that’s whack.

  19. Mbaldwin, are you like the lost, bitter Baldwin Brother or something? Ease up – there’s a little box at the top of your screen, click away if your proletarian sensibilities cannot abide The AG and his good-time lifestyle.

    In other news, I highly recommend Five Points on Great Jones Street for brunch — awesome food, near NYU/Soho so stuff to do after, cool decor, hot waiters, AND they take reservations! :)

  20. Where in NYC is smoked fish a poor man’s food? Whether I buy it sliced to order on the upper west side or the lower east side, it’s anything but cheap. There are some supermarket prepackaged off brands that are only a little bit less expensive and even less of a value.

    Nevertheless, and just as in Per Se, you’re paying for the overhead and the rental of the space you’re occupying. It costs a hell of a lot more to serve food on plate at a table than it does to sell it over the counter.

    If you’re addicted to crack it’s your own fault. Enjoy brunch out for what it is, eat at home, or chose a more plebeian food and venue, or not, but don’t whine about it or about how much you can afford to pay for brunch. What I should learn here is how is the food. Do the eggs taste like eggs from the Greenmarket or the supermarket? How is their smoked salmon. Does it compare with Russ and Daughters’ or Barney Greengrass’? Now that would be useful.

  21. for what it’s worth, i like seeing people’s wishlists on their blog – many people use their wishlists like myself (which i have linked on my blog oh no!) – as a books-to-read list not as a gimmie-gimmie list. i’ve browsed AGs wishlist and even added some of his “wishes” to my list.

    also i think it’s lame to say that he’s lying about his income when you really have nothing to go on. Personally, I enjoy when his parents take him out to fancy restaurants and he posts about it here – it helps me NARROW my list of places to go when I have enough money to go.

    just chill.

  22. That insanely expensive truffle dinner was free, wasn’t it? A gift from the restaurant that knew AG would write about the dinner in what is fast becoming a popular blog.

    AG, I still think of you as a “man of the people”. You’re beginning to get perks because of all the attention, but you worked for that. Don’t let the backlash get you down.

  23. I hear these readers comments. I do well for myself and dine at expensive restaurants and don’t feel bad about it – I earn that right working obscene hours a week and being GOOD at what I do. And I pay my electric, rent, and for my metro card too – who doesn’t? But, i’m conscious to supporting the little guys as well in my own way. The thing that is starting to bug me about this site along with these others readers, is that Adam doesn’t know much about cooking, mostly eating, and not even much about what he is eating. There are many other food bloggers out there who know about cooking, eating, and taking good photos but I don’t hear about their book deals and they still hold day jobs. They are the ones who will last and hopefully their efforts will pay off as well. Adam appealed to readers when this whole food blog thing started with his style and got LUCKY but these posts are getting dull and bugging me as well. Plus they aren’t putting him in line with real food writers or other bloggers who clearly know their stuff. He doesn’t know it yet but the industry is using the hits he gets as a way of advertising their books, restaurants, events to us readers but i’m sure they all know what is underneath. I want to like you Adam, but you’re losing me…I hope you wont.

  24. I don’t want any bitter retorts here so I’ll just say that I have enjoyed your site for many years and continue to enjoy it. A whole bunch. Yay AG!

  25. damn AG, you got a lot of haters on your reader list. people need to chill out.

    you people who find a schism between his level of income (whatever that may be, and if you fools don’t know how much something like google adsense can pay… well, you living under a rock) and his dining choices… let’s just put it this way. if your own mommy and daddy paid for your meal, and it’s at an extravagant restaurant, eat up! any fool would. duh.

    as for the other haters who rip on him for the man of the people thing. when did he call himself man of the people? when did you become dumb enough to believe it? i been reading this blog for a few months, and guess what people? if you found a blog that was more “man of the people”, makes less than 30K a year, it would be a blog that’s devoid of pictures and filled with the same food over and over again. so this luck mofo gets free lobes of foie gras and gets free truffle meals. so what? stop being so jealous you nimwits. what sane person would turn those things down?

    and the guy talking about other bloggers who know more about cooking or whatever. guess what? it’s not about what you know. people read for a variety of reasons, partly to gain information, but also partly because it’s entertaining. boy gee golly, what a concept! oh and the minute you start saying that you “support the little guys” is the minute you become too mother effing condescending to gain the respect of the “little guys.”

    *yawn* now back to cheesy poofs and cartoons.

  26. yet you read, mike – so doesn’t that mean in some way adam is good at what he does? if he weren’t he wouldn’t be popular, would he?

  27. Relax folks, AG is just doing his thing and putting his thoughts into the cyber ethers. There’s nothing wrong with questioning someone’s logic or whatnot, but everything here is an opinion. I too agree with the opinion that some breakfasts (and restaurants in general) are pretty spendy, so I simply don’t go to them. On the other hand, it’s damn nice to treat yourself every once in awhile and have a great meal that’s worth the extra $$$.

    Can’t we all just get along?

  28. Frankly, I think people are behaving themselves very badly in the comments. It really isn’t any of your business how people pay things in their daily life. If you don’t like the blog anymore, don’t read it. I still think Adam’s writing is entertaining and relevant, and I enjoy reading the blog every day.

    And by the way, I love Per Se and I think that the price of brunch is outrageous. Agreeing with one of those statements does not preclude agreeing with the other.

  29. Mike, I never claimed to be good at food (see the title of my site) but I do think I’m a good writer. In fact, I set about creating this site as a launching pad for my writing career and that’s certainly panned out. While I’m working on my book I’m also working on various articles for different publications and most recently a novel that my agent is very enthusiastic about. I apologize if you find my posts dull, but I do think I work hard at what I do too. Normally I don’t respond to snarky comments but I’m always baffled at why people are so bitter. I invite you and anyone else who dislikes what I do to stop reading. I won’t be offended.

  30. Personally, I think all this discussion of Adam’s financial situation is total BS, because it’s none of our business. Adam, it’s your money and you should spend it the way you want. Anyone who doesn’t like the way you write or the things you write about doesn’t have to read your blog.

    I do have one question, though: there are $220 cookbooks? Do tell!

  31. Why are some people so bitter? Where does all this resentment come from? Don’t read his posts if they irritate you or take a different direction than what you expected. You’re not the Board of Directors of this blog. Get back to work.

  32. Adam, you know what the comedian Katt Williams sez about haters. If you have 20 of them hating you now, you need to work harder and have 25 hating you by the spring. Don’t change what you are doing. Just keep being yourself, and eating free meals and bitchin’ about whatever high prices you want to bitch about.

    I too think $18 is way too much to pay for eggs and salmon and I know I make way more money than you do. It’s still an outrage and I would bitch my ass off also.

  33. on a related note,

    i noticed that you have the la brea bakery cookbook in your sidebar. i used to live just down the street from there, and went in a couple of times. only a couple though. the prices were outrageous! i once picked out a loaf of bread – their prices aren’t marked – and my jaw dropped when the cashier charged me $9. it turns out that several of the breads cost into the teens.

    their bread is good, but it’s not THAT good. it’s no better than any other decent bakery that charges $3-4 for a loaf. i’ve even worked at one.

    anyway, it’d probably be better to buy the cookbook and make it at home. i’m sure you’d save some cash…

  34. I HATE INTERNET HATERS. It’s a BLOG, people! Get a grip!!

    Adam, I hope you won’t let your critics get you down. Personally, I delight in your writing and admire your courage in taking the plunge as a writer – I’m cheering you on all the way!

    I tend to go to diners for brunch, so it’s a bit cheaper, though it is curious that brunch on the whole is pricey relative to the costs of its component parts. My personal pet peeve: paying $15 for a plate of pasta when a pound of it can be had for a buck or less at the supermarket – what’s up with that?

  35. I agree w/ Kristi. Don’t feed the trolls Adam. They don’t speak for all of us. And as far as your financial situtation is concerned, ain’t no one’s business but your own.

  36. wow. i agree with some of the earlier comments, that if people don’t like what’s written on this blog, they could just not read it, rather than coming and posting bitter comments. i was amazed at how many mean-spirited bits were posted above! adam i love your blog and your writing and i find it quite inappropriate that people are using this space to critize and comment on the state of your finances.

    i enjoy reading about and living your NY-based food experiences vicariously through you! keep up what you’re doing!

  37. I’m beginning to think that bitterness (aka jealousy) is the sincerest form of flattery, at least from some of the haters on this blog. Don’t give them your energy, Adam. You have lots of devoted fans and friends throughout the blogosphere. Although I may not eat at Per Se and I’ve been cooking since I was a child, my experience doesn’t have to be like yours for me to enjoy your blog and to try out recipes and restaurants that intrigue me because of your fun and witty posts.

    On another note, I’ve come to really love weekend breakfasts at home. We have a waffle iron bought at a yard sale and a big griddle that can accomodate lots of bacon and pancakes or french toast. We make big pots of coffee and usually carry it all in on trays to eat in bed, with rumpled covers and papers — a pleasure that Eli’s and Sarabeth’s can’t really supply, no matter what they charge…

  38. I think it was the free truffle meal that turned me off.

    I think you loose your validity when you go for the free stuff.

    I pay for the meals I write about. I don’t want to be compromised. And I want to maintain ethical standards. But then, I write for a newspaper, not a blog.

    Adam seems to be trying to find his way between journalism and pr.

    I hope he finds the true path.

  39. Wow – you never know what will set people off when you sit down to write a blog post. What business is it of anyone here what AG does and how he makies his money. I find the blog enteratining and interesting. I’ll certainly never be eating at Per Se and it’s fun to read about Adam and his family and they’re squirming to get into a good table and his Mom’s love of celebrities. I think they are all very human and ordinary, which is a compliment.

    And I agree about the price of breakfasts – but really, couldn’t you say that about the price of almost any meal out these days?

  40. I don’t think it’s jealousy. The guy has no official credibility for what he does, his writing is just simple enough for people to live vicariously through him and get the low down on what to buy. Marketing and PR loves that because it’s real life advertising. Why else would someone give him and a friend a free truffle meal? It’s not like these chefs and writers who worked hard and put in long grueling hours for little pay in the start of their careers like his charming personality – he’s pushing their product (even if it’s just their name) and usually has the means to buy the meals he has with his family. Who else is regularly eating at restaurants like Per Se and telling us about it? But it’s important because it’s the age of celebrity chefs. Where is your business sense people – and we are the pawns, that’s why people are getting annoyed. I eat at the places he talks about but I don’t need the money nearly enough to interrupt my experience with pictures and the stuff he does, which is the case for most diners at these places. Adam will get dumped in a heartbeat if someone better comes up and all you lovers will dump him too. I work in this industry too and the behavior is practically written in stone.

  41. Um, ***Amateur*** Gourmet. If you don’t like it; don’t read it.

    As for his income, I don’t think it isn’t our business as readers, but I think Adam has clarified it well.

    Am I a bit jealous ’cause I went to law school and work my ass off for my $40K? Sure! Do I begrudge him finding a career that both works for him and is fabulous? Absolutely not!

    As for the free stuff, as long as he discloses it, he’s fine. I’d start to be concerned if he LOVED everything he’s gotten for free – but I believe he has a policy about only writing about free shit he enjoyed. Good enough for me!

    My pet peeve? His skinny ass! :) Love you Adam!

  42. The hostility is definitely out of hand. AG’s only point is that the raw materials that make breakfast food are cheap, accessible and the cooking techniques used to prepare these foods relatively simple. It doesn’t take a master chef to figure out scrambled eggs and bacon. While $18 for brunch is nothing compared to dropping $300 on a Per Se meal, the only point AG is trying to make is that the $18 you spend on breakfast is not a good deal for your money. When AG goes to Per Se, it’s to sample food produced by Thomas Keller..whose years of experience and finely honed culinary skill are what diners are paying such a high premium for.

    YET, AG still loves to go out for Sunday Brunch because it’s tasty and he loves the social communal aspect of it. So why are people slamming him for “being cheap”?

    And whether or not AG has “official credibility” for what he does, first remind yourself that he’s BLOGGING…and if you’re going to slam him for lack of credibility, you better slam all the other successful food bloggers (Chocolate & Zucchini, 101 Cookbooks, Chez Pim, etc) who’ve managed to turn a hobby into a living due to their charismatic writing and the following they’ve generated through their blogs. Bottom line, if you hate reading this blog so much, go somewhere else. No one is pointing a gun to your head. Or, better yet, start your own “man of the people” food blog and try to fulfill these ridiculous populist expectations yourself.

  43. Hi, thanks everyone for chiming in and a special thanks to those who spoke in my defense. I’m closing the comments on this post because I think the conversation has run its course. I hope my detractors feel satisfied with my responses; if anyone wants to keep the conversation going feel free to e-mail me at amateurgourmet AT gmail DOT com.

    Adam

  44. We can all start reducing our spending and fight against poverty, or call congress to support bills for foreign Policy.

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  46. Retail prices have risen greatly in the last few years, and we have said virtually nothing, just begin to apply for installment loans with online approval more often. We are mostly so well off that we just take it in stride and keep on buying even discretionary items. No matter what happens on the supply side, consumers are expected to take the entire hit, but unfortunately the few who have less income have to take the same hit. This is why tying wages to ‘real’ inflation is important and would solve much labour grief.