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Nov 21, 2009 02:34 PM

Can anybody explain why southern/soul food is so expensive?

I can't stand generalizations, but this has been the case at the last four places I've had this food all across the country, so I can't help it. I'll happily overpay for food if it is really well prepared and good, and this is often the case at soul food restaurants. I've eaten quite a bit of the stuff, and needless to say, I don't go to these places for the ambiance, which often includes lots of formica, plastic china, vinyl and perhaps a hole in the wall for passing food from the kitchen, but for really good fried chicken, collards, cornbread, black-eyed peas, sweet tea, etcetera. I've noticed over the years that an entree combo plate is usually well over $20 (I just finished eating at Mrs. White's in Phoenix and paid $26+tip for a plate of smothered chicken: three thighs, greens, peas and a cup of tea). The chicken isn't usually free range, and I'm guessing that they aren't sneaking saffron into the batter spices, collards, cornmeal and peas are what is it? This food is made from some of the cheapest ingredients out there. Why does it cost a quarter of a hundred dollars for a basic soul food lunch? Or am I just picking all the wrong places?

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  1. Sounds like you are picking the wrong places. Must be "soul food places" for the noveau soul food eater. Cause, here is east TN, we can find some great food at great prices.

    1 Reply
    1. re: LGD

      Here in SC too....we had a Southern Feast at a restaurant last night.For the three of us it was less than 30.00....and it was slap your mama fantastic!

      ps I dont think Phoenix is in the South

    2. Have all the places been outside of the South? If so, that is most likely the reason. Kind of like ordering live Maine lobster in S. Dakota - it's going to cost a bit more than in Bar Harbor!

      11 Replies
      1. re: meatn3

        Thanks for the replies, but they don't really answer my question...unless, of course, it's as simple as geography. The places I've gone to are all older, established restaurants in Oakland, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Harlem, Florida, and Louisiana- and I find it's the local culture and not the specific geography that determines the quality of the food. As for meatn3's explanation, a lot of the lobster that's consumed in Maine has been shipped through the FedEx Clearwater hub in TN and back again. The quality of "Maine" lobster can be as good in the Dakotas as it is in Casco Bay thanks to a huge infrastructure for lobster transport- not the perfect analogy. A chicken is a chicken and collards are collards and don't involve underwater transport...shouldn't cost an arm and a leg. Perhaps it's because these places all have good reputations and a bit of fame. But there are lots of "famous" places that don't automatically overcharge for their food. So what is it?

        An aside: barbecue is often pricier than I'd expect...but I can understand how a given cut of beef or pork can be more expensive than chicken.

        1. re: SaltyRaisins

          curious what places in florida and louisiana

          1. re: alkapal

            Dooky Chase in Nola, and can't remember the name of the Florida's in Sarasota and is not in the same category as the others as far as the food goes, but was pricy as well.

            1. re: SaltyRaisins

              i think your instinct is correct that soul food was born of deprivation and poverty. it uses ingredients that are (were) cheap. those ingredients for the most part are still relatively cheap. you are paying for faux-soul, or by those who want to be trendy "soul" purveyors. sarasota is not the bastion of soul, and i'm trying to think where in sarasota one would find authentic "soul" food. sarasota is generally pretty upscale. dooky chase is creole, right, not "soul" food proper -- and is probably recovering from down time and lost profits post-katrina. hey, if i could charge big bucks for my "soul" food, i probably would, also.

              that being said, the only "soul" food i'd eat at a restaurant is probably fried fish. and that's because i don't want to stink up the house with fried fish.

              poor salty raisins, just make your own black eyed peas. it's really easy. ;-)).

              1. re: alkapal

                Oh, and I do. I even skillet-fry my own chicken. But for the same reasons you eat fish out, I like to eat soul at a restaurant from time to time. And I think you'd catch some flack from categorizing Nellie's in Oakland and Sylvia's in Harlem as "faux soul." Same thing for Mrs. Whites. I guess that's it, though: people are just charging big bucks outside the South just because they can. But it somehow still leaves me wondering...

                1. re: SaltyRaisins

                  i didn't know what other places you went. ok, maybe "faux" soul is not the right term. but "soul" food is cheap. food that one thinks should be cheap but isn't -- even though it has a well-known provenance of "cooking-from-poverty" -- isn't "faux-soul," then. but what is it? "upscale" soul food? that's an oxymoron.

                  1. re: alkapal

                    Well, it isn't "upscale" that I dig, and it seems to be the places that make a good fried chicken in nice, hot grease without overcooking and perhaps a bit of love from the kitchen, y'know? Beans with pickled pork and the rest... nothing fancy. Just older, established places. Cheap stuff (my Mrs. Whites meal could not have cost the restaurant more than three or four dollars for the ingredients, but ended up costing me near $30), and so overpriced. I guess I should just stick to homemade.

                    1. re: SaltyRaisins

                      I looked at the menu at Mrs. White's
                      $10.18 for each meal and $2.17 for beverages with free refills.(plus tax
                      )Not knowing what kind of neighborhood they're in may have a bearing on what they have to pay in rent.
                      But from a restaurant standpoint their food cost is around 30% (if you said the meal couldn't have cost more than $3-$4...charging $10) which is in line with a restaurant of that type.
                      There are lot's of other costs that go into that $10 meal besides the ingredients.....if they're clearing $2 on that $10 meal they're lucky.

                      1. re: monku

                        Wow...I actually didn't look at the website, and the price of the meal isn't listed on the menus. I need to go try to get a refund. I thought something seemed off...but when my $26 check came, I wasn't surprised...I guess the other places I've been made me expect the huge check. On top of this, I was the only customer in the late afternoon. They really stuck it to the man this time. I'll let you know what happens tomorrow...

                        1. re: SaltyRaisins

                          I thought maybe two of you were dining.

          2. re: SaltyRaisins

            The lobster analogy was based on geographic origin/plenty rather than quality. Places where lobster is harvested get it cheaper, with greater frequency and fresher. Therefore it has become part of the areas traditional foodbase, leading to more restaurants serving it at a price lower than generally found elsewhere. Kind of a coals to Newcastle analogy.

            Plenty = affordable & reliable. Food in that category generally become the backbone of the locations traditional foodways.

            In many areas where soul food is not a part of the long term culture the price seems to be higher. Perhaps it is as simple as there being less of a built in steady customer base. Perhaps it is a situation where people only partake in that style eating on occasion, creating a need for the business to charge more. (This is similar to the theory that NYC Kosher/style deli's still exist in part to business derived from visitors. Most people don't frequently eat like that anymore. If they depended solely on the local patronage they couldn't make it these days.)

            Addressing the cost of ingredients, yes most are inexpensive but the style of cooking generally involves long periods. There is also the cost of experience. Perfect fried chicken or lighter than air biscuits are the reward of long searching.

            Rereading your response I suspect the "older, established" aspect is part of it. In my experience I have often found that the press can outlive the quality. At that point the price seems to go up and the place is living on the afterglow of their past reputation. Mama Dips in Chapel Hill is a prime example of this.

            If you are in an area where there is an established culture/tradition of soul food there should be reasonable options. Bear in mind that their cost of goods, rent etc. has had the same increases as every other genre of restaurant.

        2. I have had the same experience at Lolo's too. Amazing food but prep is not that difficult. I think they just have a great niche market and do what money making ventures do, make money. I disagree that its a regional thing the price for that food is not worth $20 plus. Chicken thighs? Come on. One thing for sure it is tasty and my grandpa used to say you can't eat the atmosphere.

          1. Here in Los Angeles there are a few soul food restaurants that make it a point that they're "upscale".

            1. I've never been to Dooky Chase, but I go to New Orleans on a regular basis. I would be willing to bet that you could find some very good, reasonably priced soul food within a few blocks of the place...

              1 Reply
              1. re: Clarkafella

                Go to Dunbar's in New Orleans, it's much cheaper than Dooky Chase. If Henry's Soul Food was still open (I don't think he reopened after Katrina, head there, if I recall you got a ton of food for $7, and it was all good.