Let’s face it: Being a food lover on a shoestring budget in a city celebrated for its superb but sometimes financially out of reach culinary scene can be as frustrating as a fallen soufflé. So what are hungry, budget-challenged Asheville foodies to do when they just can’t handle the thought of eating at home one more night?
Eating out is expensive — at least, significantly more expensive than eating in — and why wouldn’t it be? After all, someone has to drive into town to a rented building to stand behind a grill and feed a hungry crowd of people every day. That employee must be paid; the restaurant’s bills must be paid; perishable products, which go bad too quickly, must be purchased. And then there are the liability issues and high insurance rates, not to mention the elephant in the room — downtown Asheville’s ever-rising rents.
When Xpress asked former Flying Frog chef and owner Vijay Shastri about restaurants in Asheville back in May, he said, “I’ve been looking into it a lot and crunching the numbers, and if you know you’ve got the quality of product that you can sell, and you’ve got the ability to market yourself properly, it’s less risky to open up [a restaurant] in New York than it is in Asheville.”
But he doesn’t pin that risk so much on the cost of food as on a town of only 80,000 residents that’s saturated with restaurants. “Things cost a little bit more because of the size; if you want your town to stay small, you’ve got to be willing to pay a little bit for it,” he mused.
Surprisingly, however, some investigation in the North Carolina Room of Pack Memorial Library shows that, with the numbers adjusted for inflation, it’s actually cheaper to eat downtown now than it was in the ’90s and 2000s. The reason? The decline in local fine dining establishments. (See the July 21, 2016, Xpress story “The Death of Fine Dining,” )
But there’s also been a steady rise in food costs for the past five years. According to USA Today, in 2014 alone beef prices increased 23 percent and pork by 56 percent, and they are continuing to do so, albeit less dramatically. Egg prices have also risen to their highest level in over thirty years (so much for those cheap brunches). It is important to note also that food costs have been climbing at a much higher percentage than inflation, which currently sits at around 1.1 percent per year, according to the U.S. Inflation Calculator.
Despite these grim numbers, however, many local restaurants still do what they can to keep things affordable. But what, exactly, is “affordable”? The average meal at an “inexpensive restaurant” in the U.S., according to both Numbeo and Lonely Planet, costs $12, with a variable range from $10-$18. These numbers are in line with Asheville’s menu averages of around $13-$14 per meal. So for those of us who seem to have misplaced our money tree, Xpress decided to take a look at those restaurants that offer great meals for below the average, or $10 and under.
Beneath the shaded canopies of trees, deep in the belly of Montford, Nine Mile has been diligently dishing a lunch menu that checks out entirely under the $10 limit. And while their dinner menu typically sneaks in under the $20 mark, the portions are massive.
“A lot of people have figured out with us that you can get two meals out of one of our dinner portions,” says chef and co-owner Nate Ray. “From the beginning we were just trying to be an affordable place, a place where anyone could feel comfortable ordering off the menu whether they are vegetarian or a carnivore.”
Taking that dedication to affordability to the next level, behold the Natural Mystic, “a simple dish [of] linguini and house marinara,” which has been a staple menu item since Nine Mile opened. “The idea with the Natural Mystic is that anyone should be able to dig through the couch for change, come in and get a full meal,” Ray explains. At lunch it is a mere $2.95, and at dinner $5 gets you a massive serving, a side salad and bread.
“It’s important to me to offer affordable and healthy options because that’s exactly what families like mine need,” says Adam Thome, who with his wife, Emily, owns and operates 67 Biltmore, which specializes in grab-and-go meals for busy families. And while their sandwiches are definitely worth sinking your teeth into, the deli case often features a host of affordable sides, salads and cuts of meat that make it easy to customize your own meal for under $10.
“We try and provide seasonal comfort food at a reasonable price,” Thome says. “Most of the time I assess some of our grab-and-go options and realize you could hardly buy the ingredients at the store for close to the same price we’re offering it. Anyone actually buying groceries at the store lately has got to notice the price of foods continuing to rise.”
Thome says casseroles can be a good choice for the budget-conscious chef. “I think we have a good niche with our easy-to-grab small casseroles,” he adds. “Sometimes we can offset these rising food costs with this casserole-type option. That’s partly what led to them being popular decades ago in the first place. It’s a way to feed a small crowd without breaking the bank.” Nearly 30 varieties of casseroles are available at 67 Biltmore. All are sold in sizes that feed four or nine people and cost about $4-$8 per serving.
‘They have to eat somewhere too’
“They say that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” Pete Apostolopoulos, owner of the Mediterranean Restaurant, told Xpress back in 2014. “My dad was a cooper, making wine barrels back in Greece. He was in such demand, and me and his grandsons would always tell him, ‘Dad, you are not charging enough for what you do.’ And my dad’s answer was always, ‘It might not be enough for me, but it is always too much for whoever is paying it.’ And we look at the restaurant that way.”
At the Med, it is easy to fill up for under $10, particularly on the breakfast menu. But even the salads are a steal, with the misleadingly named “small” Greek salad tabbing out at around $5 and, for a dollar more, you can upgrade to the large, which could easily feed a sizable herbivore.
For over 40 years, Apostolopoulos has been manning the grill to turn out cheap food in his tiny street-side diner, often forgoing vacations back to his home country to keep the burners running here in Asheville. “You have people working in shops that are not making a whole lot of money, and they have to eat somewhere too. And what makes this place so successful is those people; you have the lawyers and the bankers, but you also have us little people.”
“My goal is to feed people, first and foremost,” says Rosetta Buan, who has run her namesake Rosetta’s Kitchen for 14 years. In addition to their Everybody Eats program — where anyone can get a bowl of rice and beans for as little as $2 or as much as $6 (if you feel like paying it forward and helping someone else afford a meal), or even approach the cashier and ask for a $2 voucher — the vegan and vegetarian kitchen has always pushed accessible, wholesome meals.
Buan says that there are a lot of “really good” people trying to serve quality cheap food downtown, but cautions, “There are some that go under, and then we see others that glean a lot of profit off of marketing those good things, while not actually delivering what they claim they are.”
Keeping prices affordable, says Buan, takes some strategizing on the part of the restaurant owner. “There are two ways of pricing out your menu: You can either set a price percentage and say that if this ingredient costs this amount, we will upcharge it by this percentage,” she says. “But another way is for restaurant owners to just gauge the price range and try to keep the ingredients as low as possible within that range. … I think that one way that we’ve been able to provide affordable food is that instead of structuring our menu around upmarking low-priced items to get a higher tab, we price our menu around the actual cost instead of the labor. But some things are very labor-intensive, and you have to calculate that labor into it as well.
Buan admits that Rosetta’s hasn’t been “really profitable, and it has been a struggle to keep it in balance. But if we can feed people and create jobs, [and] once we see business as a tool of change and part of a giant living web of our system instead of just a means of profit piling, then we can feel good feeding people who need it.” As she points out, when restaurants are seen as a necessity, “because not everyone has access to cooking equipment,” then profits are just part of the equation.
“We’d love to make a profit — we’re in, we can’t wait! But if we get it, we’ll just use it to help feed more kids,” says Buan.