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Why do people expect "ethnic" restaurants to be cheap?

In Toronto, we are blessed to have a plethora of restaurants specializing in regional cuisines from all over the world. Many of them take great pride in sourcing authentic ingredients and putting a lot of time and effort into their prep and cooking. However I frequently see people post on the Ontario board who wouldn't blink at paying $30 and up for a single, rather small plate of "haute" cuisine, yet balk and complain about paying $15 or even $10 or $12 for a plate of "ethnic" food that is often large enough to be shared.

I've seen and personally experienced the type of effort required to create a wonderful Chinese, Thai, Indian or Mexican dishes (and I'm not limiting the category to these regions). It's a lot of work! I understand that oftentimes these wonderful regional restaurants have minimal atmosphere and basic service. But this is not always the case.

Any thoughts or theories as to why this is and perhaps how we can change this mindset?

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  1. Probably because they associate 'ethnic' = 'Third World'= poor= cheap= making a little go a long way.

    1. You make a sound point. But I am curious about why you'd want to change the mindset. It appears that success in the mission would be pricier ethnic cuisine.

      Do you think that the "ethnic" foods would be even better if it paid better to produce them? Or is it concern for the conditions of existing workers?

      5 Replies
      1. re: Bada Bing

        I'd like to see it changed so that restaurants that are trying to make quality food can feel free to import those ingredients from across the ocean if they want to and push the menu, while still making a decent profit to pay themselves and their staff a better than minimum wage.

        I have a friend who owns a Thai restaurant and I've spoken to him quite a bit about the costs of running the place and importing ingredients from Thailand. His prices are already higher than most Thai restaurants in the city, which has been a gripe for some customers (though they are packed all the time, so clearly most people don't mind the prices). But as the price of ingredients has gone up due to the flooding in Thailand, he hasn't been able to increase prices due to fear of push back.

        And at a more general level, I'd like restaurants to be able to charge a bit more so that they don't feel to need to scrimp and save on ingredients and techniques to make a profit. I'd rather pay more at a restaurant that I know cares about the quality of the produce and meats they buy.

        1. re: TorontoJo

          Understood. Thai definitely has lots of ingredients that are hard to find in North America.

          1. re: Bada Bing

            I live in a climate where a number of the local Thai restaurants end up growing their own herbs because it's more cost-effective than trying to buy the same thing from a specialty supplier. It's usually in the restaurant owner's back yard, but I can think of one crumbling cement block dive with basil bushes between restaurant and gravel parking lot.

            I'm in an area that's, at heart, a military town, and the roots of ethnic restaurants in the area are 'war brides' who opened up a little business when their husbands retired young in the area. They were cooking for GIs who were thrilled to get a taste of the good stuff they'd thought they'd never see again once they PCS'ed away from Thailand or Japan or South Korea. So the price threshold for ethnic food in the area ended up being whatever a master sergeant could regularly afford for lunch.

          2. re: TorontoJo

            $30 seems to be the psychological ceiling in TO- not just for "ethnic" restaurants, but also for neighbourhood continental restaurants/bistros. I remember talking to a restaurant owner in North Toronto, and he mentioned that he brought all their prices from the mid-$30s range into the mid-$20s range a few years ago, because people wouldn't pay any more at a restaurant in their own neighbourhood, even though the same people would be prepared to pay more downtown or in Yorkville, at a restaurant they perceived as a destination restaurant. Despite the move to more economical mains, the restaurant no longer exists, and the Chef now runs a catering business. Interestingly, people are now trekking to the same stretch of Yonge from up north and from downtown, to line up across the street for $10 take-out hamburgers.

            Maybe people expect Mexican food to be cheap thanks to Taco Bell commericals.

            Re: Chinese food- I think some people expect it to be cheap because most of their exposure is through economical Chinese Cdn family restaurants and Chinatown restaurants. There's so much competition in Chinatown, Markham, Scarborough and RH, with a lot of clients looking for good value, so it's probably pretty hard for a Chinese restaurant owner to start charging more, unless he/she is able to serve something no one else can source/serve, or top quality service. In NYC, it seems like there are less upscale, high end Chinese options with top quality service in midtown than there were 15 years ago. I take that as a sign that the high-end Chinese restaurant with better service is a tough sell, even in a city with lots of customers with lots of money. There's a place in Mill Valley in Marin County that serves sustainably sourced seafood and locally sourced produce in their dim sum. I would love for a place like that to open in the GTA, but I think that's the type of place that only exists within an hour's drive of Alice Waters.

            1. re: prima

              Word on the "cheap" Mexican food. We're starting to see more upscale Mexican restaurants here, and based on my reading of cookbooks (and trying to make some dishes myself), while the ingredients may be inexpensive there's a lot of labor that goes into traditional Mexican foods, especially once you get past cheap tacos and burritos.

        2. Because usually the best authentic ethnic places cater to an ethnic population, which is usually a bit poorer and has more immigrants.

          1 Reply
          1. re: jaykayen

            You know the best ethnic restaurants serve native food to immigrant customers. Just because I happen to not be of that ethnicity, nor am I an immigrant and would be willing to pay more doesn't mean their intended target demographic is willing/able to.

          2. I feel some ethnic restaurants should be cheap, others not so much. Its difficult. Especially since I work in the restaurant industry, I understand importing special ingredients and know the added cost. But I think some people have traveled and experienced a particular dish in its home country and have seen how cheap it is and expect it to be the same price here. Thats not always possible as there may not be the same ingredients available here, there may not be the same market or demand and there may not be competition to drive the price.

            When I was in Italy, I could get a Terroni sized pizza and coke for $5. I understand the cost of sourcing the same ingredients, the prosciutto, the bufala mozzarella, anything DOP, and the atmosphere of a large restaurant vs small pizza shop with a few tables and woodstove in the dining room, but still, I'm paying 3 times the price for the same product. Yet it doesn't bother me.

            I was in Toronto with my Japanese fiancee, and anytime we went to a Chinese, Thai or Japanese restaurant, she complained about the prices. For me it wasn't so bad, Koreatown and Chinatown have some pretty inexpensive places as far as I am concerned. But she is from Japan and knows what the prices are for the same dishes, and has been to Korea and to Taiwan so knows the prices of those dishes as well. I am now in Japan, and can see where she is coming from, meals here can be $3-$5 where in Toronto the same dishes are $15-$20.

            I think its just some people being aware of what the same dishes cost in their respective countries and either aren't aware of the cost of importing ingredients, the difference of cost of the same local ingredients, and the fact you have to have knowledge in that cuisine which is an experience you also have to pay for.

            Sometimes I wonder if the prices are 3 times because of all these factors, or If they are over priced, it can be difficult to tell sometimes. Plus, you'll have one restaurant serving a dish for cheap, and others charging double, so why the price difference? When I was in Australia, the best pad thai I had in Sydney cost me $6, but some restaurants charged $12-$20, I had a couple in the $12-$15 range and they weren't as good. Why charge $20? Rice noodles aren't expensive, fish sauce was not expensive in Au, nor was tamarind paste, nor was palm sugar or whatever other ingredients they used. No difference in protein, all were shrimp pad thai, unless the $20 had 3 times as much shrimp, I don't want to pay $20 for pad thai when I know the cost of the ingredients.

            Then there is the difference in minimum wage, people in Toronto might make more per hour, as well, plus there's tipping in Toronto, plus tax so people like my Japanese fiancee find Toronto restaurants can be quite expensive. I can see why she finds some ethnic food to be expensive, and I know why I find some to be expensive, but at the same time I understand some places charging more if the experience is different.

            Sorry for the long confusing reply, I can think of lots to say on that topic but I'll leave it at that for now :P

            3 Replies
            1. re: TeRReT

              "No difference in protein, all were shrimp pad thai, unless the $20 had 3 times as much shrimp, I don't want to pay $20 for pad thai when I know the cost of the ingredients."

              You are in the restaurant business, so I don't want to sound like I know more than you do. However, could the price due to the location or the atmosphere? That is -- the $20 Pad Thai is located at a nice neighborhood with beautiful interior decoration...etc.

              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                yeah definitely thats the case, and I don't mine paying a reasonable amount more for a different atmosphere, and thats only one example, but paying more then 3 times the amount for the difference in atmosphere I experienced was not worth it. Both were open kitchens, the smaller, cheaper one had 4 people, the most expensive larger one had 3 people, so the labour cost should have been more expensive and yet the food was less expensive. Sure they could have been paid more in the more expensive kitchen, but still, less quantity, worse quality, marginally more impressive atmosphere, but more expensive.

                I get that ethnic food shouldn't always be completely cheap, but i'm not paying $20 for pad thai thats not amazing just because its trendy restaurant. If the restaurant obviously has better tasting, or more authentic tasting, then I don't mind spending a little bit more, but when it doesn't seem justified I'm not happy to pay extra.

                1. re: TeRReT

                  "I get that ethnic food shouldn't always be completely cheap, but i'm not paying $20 for pad thai thats not amazing just because its trendy restaurant. If the restaurant obviously has better tasting, or more authentic tasting, then I don't mind spending a little bit more, but when it doesn't seem justified I'm not happy to pay extra."

                  I absolutely personally agree with you. If I am going to eat out alone or with close friends, then I rather go to a restaurant which provides better food. However, I can imagine that if we are going to take a guest for a business dinner, then a fancier looking restaurant with slightly worse food is probably the safer choice.

                  Overall, I agree with you.

            2. I think it has to do with how little meat you actually get in some of the dishes served.

              Our local tamale place is very good, but one tamale, no sides other than crema and salsa, will set you back $6.75 each, dine-in or to-go. If I were to scoop out and separate the meat inside of one, I'd bet you it wouldn't come out to more than 2 or 3 oz. worth. How much should people to pay for that? A side of rice or beans costs $3.25, while homemade chips and salsa costs $4. That comes out to $15 for a tamale plus one side, a drink and the tip. 20 bucks if you add chips! Pretty steep in my book for less than a quarter pound of meat and a lot of cheap carbohydrates.

              At home I can bone out an 8 oz. chicken breast from a chicken for about 75¢ pro-rated over the other pieces of chicken I get and stock that I can make from the carcass. Yet the lunch special to-go only dish of white meat chicken with baby bok choy (rarely more than 89¢ per pound at the Asian grocery), costs $4.50 with a big scoop of rice in the container at a place near work downtown. There's never more than a quarter pound of the thinly sliced chicken breast in it. How much should people pay for something that I bet doesn't have more than $1.25 of food cost in it, with no overhead for table service to work into the price?

              1 Reply
              1. re: RelishPDX

                Sorry, but it is preposterous to assert that a restaurant's costs end at the money they paid for the ingredients in their food. Sure, you can make the same thing at home for less money than you paid in a restaurant. Care to factor in your mortgage/rent for that kitchen? The cost of the plate you put your tamale on, the napkin you used, the soap and the water to wash the plate? The salary of the person who made the tamale, the person who washed the plate and cleaned the kitchen, the person who took your order and gave you the food, the accountant who calculated your books and your taxes? The utility bill for lighting and heating your dining room, keeping your fridge cold, and piping the gas to your stove? The money you paid for the cash register, the pots and pans, the knives and other utensils?

                OK, you can leave out the cost of the table and the waitress who didn't serve you.

              2. There was a time, not so long ago, that Italian restaurants would be on this list. They have become mainstream and aren't so cheap any more. Instead they run the gamut from upscale to dive and with food from amazing to gross. There are also some very upscale Chinese restaurants, and while they are considered to be a good value for the money you spend, this doesn't mean they are cheap.

                2 Replies
                1. re: KaimukiMan

                  Thats true, but it just depends on what they are trying to accomplish. I have worked in a high end Italian restaurant, that used real products, imported DOP olive oils, finishing olive oils, prosciutto, reggiano, bufala, olives, etc and as such the price reflected this and the people that came generally appreciated this. At the same time I've worked in an Italian panini place where they used Canadian prosciutto and cold meats, frozen bufala and other local ingredients. They achieved a relatively good version of Italian food, nobody complained about the quality, it was still all very delicious, and all very obviously Italian, but most of the ingredients were local. As such the prices were quite cheap and reasonable.

                  It just depends what the restaurant it trying to accomplish. Sometimes its a benefit to import the very correct ingredients and use them where it makes sense. But sometimes you can buy very similar product locally at much less cost, so I don't always want to pay just because a product comes from the ethnic country. Sometimes the product is even inferior. I want a nice balance for my money. Some restaurants accomplish this, some use all local or from cheaper countries and have cheaper than expected food but not necessarily good, and others use very expensive all imported and are either good but expensive, or still not good and expensive.

                  1. re: TeRReT

                    I totally agree that it's about the balance and value. And I've been to places that use super cheap ingredients and still turn out tasty food. And others that, of course, turn out crap food. Would I be willing to pay more for the first place to replace their cheap ingredients will higher quality (be it humanely raised meats, or local or organic veggies)? Yep, absolutely. And I guess maybe that's part of my point -- not everyone is willing to pay for those ingredients.

                    And tardigrade above hit the other point -- some of the food people expect to be cheap has a whole lot of labor involved. To this day, I'll never understand how dim sum can be so inexpensive! :)

                2. I think alot of it depends on the ambiance of the place. If you go to a "hole in the wall" noodle place with bench type seating, it's hard to swallow a 50 dollar tab for 2 people. But if it is a higher end type of establishment with full service in a nice setting, you'll have less trouble paying such a tab.
                  We in Kingston have 2 great "ethic" Thai places close by. Both are in strip mall/multiple business settings. Both with very basic tables and service. Ambiance in each is around a 2 out of 10. An order of fresh salad rolls and 2 bowls of vermicelli noodles with pork (a meal for DH and me) at one place costs 45 dollars all in. At the other place, it costs 25 dollars all in. Both are very, very similar in quality and amount. I can't justify the former when the latter seems like a reasonable price for what we get.
                  Now, when we go for Indian food at our local beautiful restaurant downtown, in a historic building, with full excellent service and an ambiance score of 8/10, a meal for 2 runs around $70. And we happily pay.
                  It may be as simple as perceived value for money, which includes service, ambiance, and other non-food factors as well as the percieved value of the ingredients used.

                  1. I know. I think people don't fully appreciate the skill and labor in Chinese, Thai, Indian, or Mexican dishes. I think people associate ethnic foods as cheap labor and therefore should be cheap foods. Now, Japanese food does not suffer the same fate because Japan is a very developed country.

                    In time, I expect Chinese and Indian foods to go upscale like Japanese cuisine due to the growth in these two countries.

                    1. They do?

                      Some of the most expensive restaurants I know are "ethnic" -- e.g. French, Italian and Japanese.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        A lot of "ethnic" people I know (I consider myself "ethnic") like to celebrate by splurging on French food, but wouldn't think of celebrating by splurging on the best quality restaurant version of their own "ethnic" food. If people don't see their own food culture as splurge-worthy, it's going to be difficult to convince others to splurge. For some people I know, heading to a French restaurant gives them a sense of status, and they won't get the same sense of status if I suggest we go out for shawarma.

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          Yes, I know. And I deliberately put "ethnic" in quotes, as I think it's an overused and loaded term. That's why I used the description "regional cooking from around the world" in my post. I'm really referring to what people might usually think of as "cheap and cheerful" cuisines, whatever culture they are from.

                          Rick Bayliss has managed the jump. I just wish more small operations could do the same.

                        2. Most "ethnic" restaurants are cheap, or at least inexpensive. They are in New York and London and most other big cities I know where some restaurants are very expensive. (So are some high-end sushi places in New York, but that's another story.) I think the question is the wrong way around. Why are some restaurants so absurdly expensive?

                          1. I think we assume that 'foreign cuisine restaurants' (is this a good term for ethnic?) should be cheap because 20-40 years ago they were cheap.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: smartie

                              Entirely agree, smartie.

                              40 years back, "ethnic" restaurants were often serving mainly to their own community, often low paid immigrants. Where I am, there were also competing for custom from Anglo community against more established places. Price was an important selling point.

                              Nowadays, with the cuisines more established, there's been further diversification in the market with "regional ethnic" places on the increase, together with much smarter places. I would no longer expect an ethnic restaurant to be a cheap deal and certainly not cheaper than equivalent Anglo places.

                              1. re: Harters

                                right Harters - about 35-40 years ago our local Chinese and Indian restaurants were almost scary and daring places to visit but fitted our student budgets and lifestyles and were places our parents wouldn't go to because they were frequently cheap, not stylish and foods were of uncertain origin. A little later the Greek and Turkish restaurants started to open in the UK but again they were cheap along with Middle Eastern foods.

                                Nowadays the decor in numerous 'ethnics' are very fancy. I remember when Ken Lo opened his first restaurant it was very 'expensive for Chinese', then the West End of London started to get fancy Thai and Indian restaurants and suddenly these places were competing with expensive Italian restaurants in Soho and Mayfair and Chelsea.

                                Those of us old enough to remember being able to afford our student grants on Chinese or Indian at the weekend still maybe associate cheap with ethnic. I still hear our age group (50s +) say that was expensive for Chinese/Indian/you name it but don't balk at a $15 + spaghetti.