Cutback Cuisine: Restaurants Are Substituting Cheaper Ingredients As Costs Rise

As the cost of raw materials rises, its not just the food at the grocery store that’s getting smaller and more expensive—restaurants of all kinds are having to do more with less.

Meat scraps that used to be ground into hamburger are now used in pricey appetizers, says the Wall Street Journal. We hope you like pasta and stir fry because these dishes are cheaper for restaurants to prepare…

Meat scraps that used to get ground into hamburger are now listed as a $12.95 steak tartare at Murray’s steakhouse in Minneapolis. At Gramercy Tavern in New York, the caviar-topped hamachi appetizer has been replaced with a tuna-and-beet tartare topped with sliced radishes. Uptown at Isabella’s, a pasta dish is squeezing out a sirloin.

Restaurateurs plain and fancy are counting on dishes with bigger profit margins to stay afloat. Pink’s hot dog stand in Hollywood introduced a $6.75 dog that’s more topping than wiener. Others are shrinking portions or increasing prices. The Dollar Menu at some McDonald’s restaurants is now the “Dollar Menu & More.”

Pampered diners at New York’s Blue Water Grill sit in plush fabric seats, surrounded by yards of pressed white tablecloths. But in the cramped stainless-steel kitchen, a sous chef engages in some culinary penny-pinching, cleaning up a piece of beef he has just cut from a slab of tenderloin. The trimmings, left after slicing the tenderloin into center-cut filet mignon steaks, used to be eaten by the staff. Now they go to a sushi chef for the $12 chipotle-marinated beef roll.

Another tactic: Some restaurants are pulling the expensive dishes off the menu and offer them as specials. This helps the item sell better and reduces leftovers.

Cutback Cuisine [Wall Street Journal via BuzzFeed]
(Photo:Wall Street Journal)


Edit Your Comment

  1. chuloallen says:

    or do what applebee’s and those restaurants have done; Make a “just right size for you, not too small not too big”

  2. chuloallen says:

    @chuloallen: but all they did was make it smaller and charge a higher price

    this comment thing needs an edit button

  3. forgottenpassword says:

    lol The fancy “la-de-da!” place I worked at years ago ALWAYS did this! Of course, you could argue that its the preparation by the “master chefs” of cheap ingredients is what you are REALLY paying for.

    Reminds me of the scene from “European Vaction” where the grizwolds were eating at a fancy french restaurant & in back the “chefs” were taking food out from tv dinners & passing it off as their own! LOL!

    Note: I saw on the news a while back that it is common practice for some restaurants to strain the unused butter (left from people’s plates) to be reused later….. blech!!!!!

  4. raleel says:

    I used to work in the restaurant business many years ago. Food costs were a big portion of your operating costs, and it was _hard_ to cut back in them, because, you know, it’s food your are serving :)

    I guess it’s a good thing that they are not wasting as much.

  5. smitty1123 says:

    Learn to cook.

    Don’t have time to cook? Tough.

  6. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    Chacho’s Mexican restaurant here in Houston has imposed a surcharge on each and every dish they serve that contains cheese (which is damn near all of them). They cite the rising price of cheese as the reason for this. Anyone else run into this? Do you think it’s legit?

    I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous since the time a restaurant tried to charge me extra for leaving the meat off a Philly cheese steak (leaving cheese, onions, peppers, and sauce) on the grounds that it was “extra work for the kitchen”.

  7. Papagoose says:

    Back in my life as a cook, I’ve been told to do many nasty things to save money. Straining the butter is nothing – I’ve had to use tweezers to pull worms from pieces of old fish, scrape leftover soup from bowls back into the pot, reuse lemon and parsley garnishes, pour lemon juice on old shrimp to mask to taste and smell of spoilage. We used to use the trimmings from bulk meat in special entrees – basically charges people $20 to eat what would have otherwise been trash or hamburger at best.

    So glad I got out of that line of work.

  8. One would think that portion sizing would become more of a core concern. It would work for them on the front of selling more deserts, which are big money makers, and reducing waste when people who wouldn’t eat a desert anyway only eat 1/2 of the food and take the rest home.

  9. sir_eccles says:

    Having just read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, this is hardly surprising.

  10. howie_in_az says:

    @Papagoose: Uh, and you actually did those things? I don’t know who’s worse — the company for asking you to do it, or you following through.

  11. char says:

    I would rather restaurants take the course of Peter Lugers, serve smaller portions of the same high quality steaks (or whatever you are serving).

  12. johnva says:

    @speedwell: What do you mean by “legit”? Restaurants can charge whatever price they want for their food, and that’s fine as long as people agree to pay it. Were they not disclosing the surcharge up front or something? THAT would be shady.

  13. Balisong says:

    @Papagoose: Yeah, what Papagoose said. Where the hell were you working?!?

  14. SOhp101 says:

    High end restaurants are all about the atmosphere and service–their food is usually not that great. If you want great food, hole-in-the-wall places are where you should eat, but those are usually only known by the locals.

    Btw, most people don’t realize that hamburger meat is traditionally the leftover trimmings of higher cuts of beef from things like tenderloin, ribeye, NY strip, etc., along with other cuts that are more flavorful but not quite as well marbled/tender.

    It ultimately depends on your butcher but if you need hamburger meat you’re better off buying hamburger meat instead of asking him/her to grind some from other cuts. Ask your butcher first what leftover trimmings he uses.

  15. stanfrombrooklyn says:

    I worked in a pizza place once that was hosting a huge bar mitzvah. The cook started to walk out with a dozen pepperoni pizzas before someone screamed “JEWS DON’T EAT PORK!” and then all of us hurriedly took off the pepperoni one by one and replaced them with pineapple, hamburger, chicken, and whatever else we could find. No way was the owner going to throw away all the pizzas.

  16. cmdrsass says:

    Higher restaurant prices and shrinking portions can only be good news for America’s expanding waistlines.

  17. ElizabethD says:

    Pasta and stir-fry… sounds just like home.

  18. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @johnva: Ok, fair enough. The last time I was there was before their “cheese surcharge.” And it was NOT marked on the menu, IIRC. It was on a homemade sign on the wall, and listed as a line item on the receipt (I wouldn’t have bought it for myself, but I needed to pick up an enchilada for my coworker’s lunch).

  19. johnva says:

    @stanfrombrooklyn: Why did they order pepperoni pizzas if they wouldn’t eat it? Or did they not specify the exact toppings? If they didn’t, why would they not at least specify prohibited ingredients? Sounds like a bizarre situation to me.

  20. elijah_dukes_mayonnaise says:

    I noticed recently that Taco Bell raised the bean burrito prices to 89 cents. Things really are tough all over.

  21. johnva says:

    @speedwell: OK, that does seem slightly shady. I’m pretty sure there might be rules about prices not being fully disclosed on the menu, and that might be in a gray area. That being said, cheese prices have jumped quite drastically, so I understand why they feel the need to raise prices on those items. I don’t think it’s just sleazy profit-making.

  22. redhand32 says:

    I just ate dinner at a fine Italian restaurant in South Philly. I thought the tunafish on my antipasto was Jonah and the whale himself sitting on my plate. There was only some small tomato wedge though. Pity. Expensive too. But, I showed them. I had a gift certificate in these pressing times.

  23. jesuismoi says:

    All the food reuse “techniques” that people are listing here is ILLEGAL in the US as a violation of sanitation. Once the food hits the table it’s going with you or it’s going in the garbage (or down the disposal).

    This is why we have health inspectors!

  24. Topcat says:

    @SOhp101: Yes and no. Yes, some of the best restaurants are simple, using a few ingredients and preparing them well. If you want to know what the best restaurants in town are, go where the chefs go, and more often than not you’ll find some inexpensive diamond in the rough.
    However, a lot of high-end restaurants really are all about the food, and you’re paying for the unique and often expensive exotic ingredients. Separating those from the joints with a $40-plate of bolognese and moody lighting is the trick.

    And yeah, hamburger is almost always the trimmings. If you want to be served a disgusting piece of meat, order something well-done, and you’re sure to get the oldest, skankiest piece of beef the restaurant’s just been waiting to have the chance to get rid of.

  25. ChuckECheese says:

    @chuloallen: Not having an edit button keeps people honest–no hit-and-run commenting. And we get to see what bad spellers you are.

  26. azntg says:

    Not a major surprise at all. Some of the horror stories that my mother told me when she used to work in the food service industry used to freak me out. But now, I know, if you want only the best, you gotta grow, prepare and eat your own food. Nobody else will care much about that as you will.

    It’s tough, being an time strapped undergrad, to do just that, so I’m willing to risk a bit eating out. I hope I can eventually have a career that gives me some time (or have a wife that’s a good cook or have the money to hire a good cook altogether)

    @stanfrombrooklyn: ROFLMAO! Having a disproportionate amount of Jewish friends, I really can’t help but wonder how many times they are eating non-Kosher food when they think they are.

  27. SpdRacer says:

    @sir_eccles: Really great book, after reading it I was glad I don’t eat out very much!

  28. Topcat says:

    On the other hand, I’ve traveled around the world and had no major illnesses as a result of eating a solely variety of street food and local fare. If someone reusing a basket of bread in an American city gets you uppity, you shouldn’t be eating out.

  29. johnva says:

    @stanfrombrooklyn: Also, isn’t ANY meat with cheese non-kosher? Maybe they didn’t care about the kosher rules.

  30. MONEYONFIRE says:

    @SOhp101: “If you want great food, hole-in-the-wall places are where you should eat, but those are usually only known by the locals.”

    What year do you think it is?

  31. ChuckECheese says:

    Food costs aren’t that much of restaurants’ expenses, usually 20-30%. So you aren’t going to lower costs that much with some of these economies, although I suppose every little bit of gristle and recycled kale garnish helps. Do the math though: reduce your food costs by 5% (in your dreams), and you’ve really only reduced costs by 1%-1.5%. Does anybody put kale on restaurant plates anymore? Back when I was a chef in the early 90’s, food was cheap and I was quite wasteful.
    @speedwell: That is funny. Here in secret Mexico, I’ve noticed that there is less cheese on stuff that would normally have cheese on it, but nobody has instituted the impuesto de queso yet.

  32. bohemian says:

    I would rather just pay more than be subjected to the various slight of hand techniques in the article. But we don’t go out to eat that often, so another $5 for an entree is not a big deal.

    Worrying about quality or sanitation would put me off going to a restaurant more than dropping an extra $10 on a couple.

  33. MissTic says:

    Technically, it should be called the “Dollar and More Menu” at McDonalds.

    And who pays almost $7 for a hot dog?!?!?!? Admittedly, I don’t eat them so…

  34. ChuckECheese says:

    @johnva: I imagine any Jew that would eat pizza isn’t terribly concerned about keeping kosher, as nearly everything about pizza is treyf. No bacon-cheeseburgers, no milk & meat combos, and then there’s that horrible joke…

  35. BeFrugalNotCheap says:

    @smitty1123: LOL. My thoughts exactly. Learning to cook is taking on a valuable skill. I love cooking and have found that the best meals are the ones that have the most prep work involved.

  36. nikkomorocco says:


    Are those sorts of comments really necessary?

  37. csdiego says:

    Higher food prices could be a blessing in disguise: maybe now restaurants will trim their portions a little instead of routinely serving up two or three meals’ worth of food in each dish.

  38. topgun says:

    @ChuckECheese: As one who owns a restaurant 35% is your target cost. It usually goes above that.
    @Papagoose: Really stupid of the owner. Food poisoning costs in litigation, lost customer and possibly being shut down.

  39. memphis9 says:

    “…maybe now restaurants will trim their portions a little instead of routinely serving up two or three meals’ worth of food in each dish.”

    Nah, for the “2nd wave” marketing, they’ll just switch to “upsizing” with cheap, empty carbs and such: “Now, with MORE spaghetti!”

    Tortillas and other tasty corn products are surely one reason that the population of Mexico is now Almost As Fat as Us. Not that I’m some pork-rind chompin’ carbophobe or circle-of-life-hating vegan, but I do agree with “In Defense of Food” author Michael Pollan’s words of wisdom: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

    I do feel bad for independent restaurateurs, but I won’t cry for Cheesecake Factory or Olive Garden any more than I did for Enron, or do for Bear Stearns. There’s a special place in hell for the movers and shakers who long ago replaced scads of Real Food on chain menus with six kinds of rubber chicken salad and a dozen kinds of rubber chicken pasta. There’s a particular abomination in my area called McCallisters, where the food is so great that their ads go on and on…about their (seriously mediocre) sweet tea. I notice that their recent new-strip-mall locales are charging unprecedented high prices, and find it mind-boggling that we are such creatures of habit that good holes-in-wall are failing in the current environment.

  40. ClayS says:

    It’s a little known fact that just because a restaurant serves you a huge entree, you aren’t compelled to eat it all. Restaurants are happy to wrap the remainder for you to take home and perhaps get another meal from it. That is not only frugal, but is the answer to some of the overweight problems we have.

  41. LikeYourFace says:

    @Papagoose: You could have killed someone. Seriously. Not cool. @sir_eccles: lol. Don’t eat fish on Monday.

  42. less_is_best says:

    I work with a bunch of Indians who refuse to eat meat. So every time we have a lunch meeting there has to be special “meat free” itmems just for them. Last year when there was a “meatless” chili made, we dropped in one itsy bitsy piece of meat that would never be seen, according to their beliefs we sent one of them to hell! LOL! Good times!

  43. ClayS says:

    Nice guy.

  44. Mr. Gunn says:

    SOhp101: I don’t know where you live, or what your experience has been, but next time you’re in New Orleans I’ll take you to some nice places that will knock your socks off.

    I think I know what you mean, though. Sometimes places that were good in the past and are now riding on their reputation are the ones that make all the travel guides.

  45. Kajj says:

    @smitty1123: Many people who know how to cook also enjoy eating at restaurants on occasion.

  46. ChuckECheese says:

    @memphis9: I share many of your sentiments about the degradation of restaurant food, but I suspect the main reasons for the failure of mom & pop-ish restaurants vs the corpse-er-ations are (a) too-high rents and (b) bad management & staffing. It’s amazing how many people, otherwise unqualified, will open a restaurant just because they had the idea. Sometimes I think about doing things, like punching people, but that doesn’t mean I do it. A suspicion I have about the quickly rising prices are that restauranters (and other businesses) are pre-emptively raising their prices in anticipation of inflation and in anticipation of reduced sales, which is sort of a way of pre-emptively shooting yourself in the foot.

    @less_is_best: Get the desi-injuns some cheese enchiladas and refried beans, and stop teasing them. They have it hard enough doing trying to answer all our phone calls.

  47. ChuckECheese says:

    @topgun: Ok. It’s gone up since I was doing food, the same way the standard tip has gone up to 18% from 15%. @ClayS: /facepalm. I had no idea you could fail to eat everything on your plate. When I lived in France and people would ask me what I did in the U.S., I’d tell them, “comme beaucoup d’americains, je mange trop et crotte enormement.”

  48. akalish says:

    @Papagoose: And that, ladies and gents, is why I never eat out!

    Check out the health inspection reports for the places you like to eat in…You’ll likely be horrified.

  49. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @ChuckECheese: Nix on the Mexican food. Here in Houston, exactly ONE place I know of uses vegetable shortening and oil instead of pig lard. And they don’t cater.

  50. csdiego says:

    @ClayS: You know, I’ve heard that before, but I hate doggie bags. The people I usually eat with don’t want the same thing I do, so we can’t share. And if I leave food uneaten on my plate I can feel my Depression-era grandmother frowning over my shoulder at the waste. Mostly I deal by not going to restaurants any more.

  51. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    @memphis9: Best sweet tea (outside of homemade) comes from Publix. Their lemonade also rocks.

    People don’t complain about their food when they’re in the restaurant and it will continue to suck! Complaining here on Blame the Consumerâ„¢ gets you nothing but feigned sympathy.

  52. ClayS says:

    I don’t like carrying doggie bags out of restaurants either, but my wife has no problem with that. She’s also the one that usually eats the leftovers.

    I also have a psychological issue with wasting food, but as you said, portions are sometimes twice what you consider normal sized.