Inflation weighs on legendary lunch menu

A cafe in Madrid, Spain Photo: VCG

Dreamed up in the 1960s to attract tourists, Spain’s three-course “menu del dia,” or lunch menu, has long been considered the city’s best offering.

But with inflation hovering around 10%, its affordability is under threat as restaurants look for ways to save.

For a starter, main course and dessert or coffee (or both), bread and a drink, the average price is around 12.8 euros ($12.60), according to figures from the Hosteleria de España, the main Spanish hospitality association representing the hotel and restaurant industry. .

Offered by almost every Spanish restaurant, its price makes it a popular option in a country where people eat out frequently.

“Everyone chooses it,” says Sara Riballo, in her thirties, sitting on a terrace in central Madrid.

“We eat several times a week at the restaurant and we generally opt for the fixed menu because it is better value for money, it is faster and it is quite varied”, confirms his colleague Estefania Hervas.

Normally comprising a soup or salad, bread, a main dish with a side dish, dessert and coffee, this mid-day meal offers customers two or more choices for dishes.

Spanish restaurants serve an average of four million “menus del dia” every day in the country of 47 million people, according to the hotel association.

The idea was first concocted nearly six decades ago. A ministerial order has been issued that all restaurants must offer a “tourist menu” to cater for the growing waves of foreign visitors to the Spanish coast.

The decree was registered in the official bulletin of the Spanish State, stipulating that from August 1, 1964, the menu must include, at the “minimum”, a soup, a main dish, a dessert, a glass of wine and bread.

Still, it later became popular nationwide in the 1970s, as the meal offered a reasonable choice for workers who couldn’t go home for lunch.

“Extremely worried”

The tradition has endured until today, where it acts as a sort of barometer of the Spanish economy, explains Emilio Gallego, general secretary of the hotel association.

“It’s a very, very popular way to have lunch with millions sold every day across the country. It’s something we constantly monitor,” he said.

Describing itself as “extremely worried about the effects of inflation and rising prices in recent months”, the association found that three quarters of its restaurants had increased the price of their menu del dia between November 2021 and April 2022.

And that was before inflation peaked in July at 10.8%.

Over the past few months, the price of olive oil has risen 42.5% alongside the cost of bread, milk, eggs, meat and pasta, not to mention spiraling utility bills. electricity, refrigeration or gas for stoves and ovens.

With the industry “hit hard by rising energy and raw material costs at a time when it was still recovering from the health crisis”, it had no choice but to raise prices, Gallego said.

In most cases, restaurants have increased the price of their menu del dia by 10 to 15%, an increase of between 1.0 and 1.5 euros.

“We will not survive”

At Café Gijon, an emblematic restaurant on the central boulevard of Castellana in Madrid, they serve up to 250 dishes a day, at a price of 15 euros each.

But manager Jose Manuel Escamilla said prices are expected to rise in the coming weeks.

“Everything is going up: the price of electricity and mortgage costs have exploded. If things continue like this, we will not survive.”

“It’s difficult because it will affect our customers but at the end of the day if we don’t do it we won’t be able to operate,” he said.

Many restaurants are looking for other ways to save money and protect their margins.

At a restaurant in one of Madrid’s upscale neighborhoods, they now order bulk meat and whole fish rather than pre-cut portions because the price is lower, admitted one of his shoppers, asking to speak under cover of anonymity.

Gallego thinks other restaurants will adapt by creating other formats, such as a two-course option of a main course with a starter or dessert.

At Valgame Dios, in the Chueca district of Madrid, the number of dishes on offer has already been reduced.

“Instead of three or four starters, we have two,” says waitress Laura Rubio, who says she’s “just waiting to see what happens” and whether that will put off diners.

Like other clients, the 47-year-old screenwriter Helio Mira shows courage.

“It’s not just the price of the menu del dia that’s going up but the price of living in general, but what can we do?” he said.

“We just have to weather the storm.”


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