Whenever I post a beautiful cross section of a sandwich to my Instagram story, inevitably I get comments saying “too expensive” or “how much did it cost, though?” Inflation, supply chain issues, and high cost-of-living expenses have left many people questioning how much a good sandwich should actually cost, and I don’t blame them.
The price of a quick meal is an issue greatly magnified in cities like Los Angeles, where A) it costs a lot to live and B) there’s an abundance of cheap, delicious food options. The typical argument among sandwich skeptics usually goes something like this: Why would you ever pay $25 for lunch (sandwich, soda, chips, tip) when you can get two of the best al pastor tacos of your life at Angel’s Tijuana Tacos for a measly $5, or a bowl of boat noodles for $12? It’s a fair question, and it raises another: What are chefs doing to keep their sandwich prices down and appeal to increasingly cost-conscious consumers?
The cost of sandwiches is going up everywhere, to the point where even making a good grilled cheese sandwich at home has become a more pricey endeavor. The beloved bacon, egg, and cheese (BEC), though it remains reasonable, has nearly doubled in price, and everywhere people are finding it harder to justify eating out for lunch at all. Sandwiches ought to be a quick and easy meal that’s light on the wallet—elevate them too much, and they start to draw customers’ ire.
Everybody has their own line they draw in the sand. A sandwich that costs $10 (a price that might have once been a generously high threshold) is now a heck of a deal in a major city if you can find it. For others, $15 is the most they’ll pay. No matter the limit, most people seem to agree that 20 bucks for a sandwich is far too high.
On the opposite end of the sandwich spectrum are the absolute steals, like “The Sandwich” at Roma Market in Altadena, California. This bodega-style sando only costs $6, up from its longstanding $5 price due to inflation. With no tipping function at the grocery store, this $6 sandwich actually costs $6. In Los Angeles County, of all places. Kind of incredible.
If Roma Market can pull this off, then what’s causing so many businesses to charge $15 or $20 for a sandwich? I spoke with Jeff Strauss, of Jeff’s Table in Los Angeles, to learn more about rising food costs, profit margins, restaurant practices, and how he keeps his prices at a level he feels is reasonable.
Jeff’s Table operates in the back of a convenience store in Highland Park. Strauss himself is a great dude who, fun fact, used to write for the TV show Friends. Needless to say, he didn’t have to make Jeff’s Table (or his other venture, Oy Bar) a thriving business, but he did anyway. On some level, it seems like he just wants to contribute to the awesome food scene here in LA—but regardless of his background, he speaks like a restaurant worker through and through.
“Sandwiches are the tip of the iceberg regarding the food industry,” Strauss said. “Americans in particular don’t really pay what it takes to make food. No matter where we are, we abuse the land, we abuse farm workers, we abuse kitchen workers. We pay front of house service staff the lowest we can, then rely on a tip system which ultimately favors the rich. No health care.”
These aren’t just the realities of the full-service sit-down places, either. The broken system extends to counter-service spots, too.
“In theory, it’s a totally non-viable way to run a sandwich shop,” Strauss said. “I’ve had to raise my prices twice during the pandemic, all the while making compromises.”
So, what were those compromises? How has he managed to thread the needle, providing a product he can stand behind while not alienating loyal customers put off by higher prices? He broke it down for me.
It should be no surprise that meat and cheese are usually the most expensive elements of any sandwich. Given that inflation has affected both products, restaurant owners must make certain concessions, and it helps to get crafty with the available resources.
“I’m not buying what I want to be buying,” Strauss said. “I can’t do what I want. I’d have to charge $35 for a sandwich.”
Instead of using fatty brisket, for example, he makes his in-house pastrami with beef chuck, and he’s proud of the final product; a Reuben at Jeff’s Table costs $14.95 before tip. Made with seeded rye, homemade kraut, spicy dressing, melted Comté cheese, and a gruyere crisp, it’s not the giant stack of pastrami you’ll get at, say, Katz’s or Pastrami Queen, where sandwiches feed two and cost $25. But it’s a damn good pastrami sandwich, and it’s got Strauss’ fingerprints all over it.
The menu at Jeff’s Table has always been ambitious with its ingredients, so meat and cheese is where Strauss has had to call the most audibles. “I had a cheese I was getting for ten dollars a pound, and it’s now 16,” he said. “It was too expensive at ten!”
The cheese he refers to is the Toma from Point Reyes. It’s an award-winning semi-hard cheese that pops up on menus all across Los Angeles, the type of ingredient that has chefs licking their chops when creating a sandwich menu—but for Strauss, it was the first thing to go. His sandwiches used to be $12-$13, and now they sit at $14-$15. That cheese would certainly elevate some of the sandos into the dreaded $16 territory.
Strauss still isn’t making a killing off of his sandwiches. He makes up for some of his food cost with sides and pickles, both of which are more labor-intensive to make but yield great food cost.
Bread, for Strauss, is non-negotiable. Which makes sense, when you think about it: a pastrami sandwich without an excellent rye bread might as well be after-school peanut butter and jelly. Any bread that he doesn’t make himself, he gets from a local bakery down the street.
If you’re a sandwich shop and you don’t have fresh bread, there’s very little separating your business from, say, Subway or Jersey Mike’s (though, to be fair, Jersey Mike’s is pretty good). With so many local sandwich shops having to use commercialized meat, fresh baked bread is the one key factor that makes a sandwich seem personal.
In fact, bread is the one thing allows a place like the aforementioned Roma Market to serve a $6 hoagie worthy of high praise. “The Sandwich” itself is simply commercial mortadella, capicola, salami, provolone cheese, and a drizzle of olive oil. Nothing too special, but it’s served on a homemade Sicilian loaf that’s crusty, filling, and uniquely delicious. No sauce or homemade pickles (both of which add labor cost and food cost), no aioli, no giardiniera, no artisanal or even imported salami. But that bread is cheap and legendary, and you don’t see it anywhere else in Los Angeles.
The price of sandwiches has risen everywhere, but they’re especially expensive in neighborhoods like Beverly Hills. At Lorenzo, where sandwiches reach and sometimes exceed $20, I can’t help but think, oh, hell no. McCall’s Meat Market in Los Feliz often sells wet, day-old sandwiches in its coolers for $15, and it pisses me off every time I see it. If you’re going to charge $15 for a sandwich, it had better be fresh. There are certain transgressions made within the food industry, and customers have a right to gripe about them.
I think Strauss does a great job keeping his sandwiches accessible. The $14–$15 mark is a fine place to live these days, especially in a city like Los Angeles. He has navigated the inflation by using cheaper cuts of meat and swapping out cheeses while maintaining the overall integrity of his food. He kind of has to, right? Otherwise people are going to take their business elsewhere—though there are a shrinking number of places to take it.