$15 French Fries and $18 Sandwiches: Inflation Hits New York
This was supposed to be a summer of long-awaited celebrations in New York City, the return of a packed calendar full of birthday dinners and happy hours. But New Yorkers are confronting sticker shock everywhere they look, whether they’re shopping for barbecue supplies at the grocery store, ordering a beer after work or grabbing a late-night slice of pizza.
While rent and the cost of Uber trips have reached eye-popping levels, rising food prices are among the most painful results of inflation. In May, food prices in the New York City area rose at their fastest annual pace since 1981, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The effects have been especially visible throughout the city — everybody has to eat.
The increase slowed in June, the most recent inflation report showed, but food prices were still 9.1 percent higher than a year earlier in New York and 10.4 percent higher nationwide.
Rising prices have come for beloved New York staples like the ice cream cones at Mister Softee trucks and the bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches at bodegas. And they have worsened the city’s hunger crisis; the number of children visiting food pantries was 55 percent higher earlier this year than it was before the pandemic, according to City Harvest, the largest food rescue organization in New York City.
Many restaurants and bars that survived the pandemic resisted raising prices last year, afraid of scaring away customers during a fragile recovery. Now, as businesses have increased wages to attract workers in a competitive labor market while facing soaring food and energy costs, higher prices are popping up on menus across the city.
We followed five New Yorkers last month during their weekly eating routines to document where they were seeing the effects of inflation.
$3.50 for a Bagel
On a recent Monday morning, shortly after arriving at work, Mamadu Jalloh paid $3.50 for an everything bagel with plain cream cheese and $1.50 for a hot coffee at a street cart near his job in Queens, where he works at a nonprofit organization that helps formerly homeless adults.
The cart’s owner, Ali Apdelwyhap, had just raised coffee prices by 50 cents. Almost every single item in his cart had become more expensive, even the bags of ice he uses to store drinks. He was hesitant to go beyond 50 cents, worried his regulars — who include a large number of construction workers — would stop coming. “It’s too much for people,” he said.
Before the pandemic, Mr. Apdelwyhap’s breakfast cart had been parked in Midtown, serving lawyers and bankers who seemed less sensitive to price increases. Now, with most office workers no longer commuting five days a week, he said he can’t sustain his business there. He settled on this new corner along the northeastern waterfront in Queens after noticing construction sites nearby, hoping it would be a place where workers were required to show up in person.
What is inflation? Inflation is a loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation and toys.
What causes inflation? It can be the result of rising consumer demand. But inflation can also rise and fall based on developments that have little to do with economic conditions, such as limited oil production and supply chain problems.
Is inflation bad? It depends on the circumstances. Fast price increases spell trouble, but moderate price gains can lead to higher wages and job growth.
How does inflation affect the poor? Inflation can be especially hard to shoulder for poor households because they spend a bigger chunk of their budgets on necessities like food, housing and gas.
Can inflation affect the stock market? Rapid inflation typically spells trouble for stocks. Financial assets in general have historically fared badly during inflation booms, while tangible assets like houses have held their value better.
Mr. Jalloh, 28, is one of them, driving in five days a week from his home in the South Bronx. Since high food and gas prices have strained his budget, he will sometimes skip breakfast or lunch to make his $700 monthly rent, or shop at 99-cent stores.
His hourly wage recently increased by 5.4 percent, from $24.62 to $25.95, as part of a citywide cost-of-living adjustment given to certain nonprofit workers. But, Mr. Jalloh said, it has done little to defray the impact of inflation. “It’s helping, but it’s not really helping,” he said.
$3.75 for Ice Cream
Patrick Dunne, a second-year medical student, stopped by Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffe, a bakery in the East Village of Manhattan, for a midday snack. It cost him $3.75 for one scoop of strawberry ice cream, an order that increased by 25 cents this summer. He also bought a box of pastries, including a $7 portion of tiramisù, which increased by 50 cents.
Mr. Dunne, 25, brought the pastries back to his family in the Bronx. He moved in with them after leaving his Manhattan apartment early in the pandemic, and now, with rents surging, he cannot afford his own place.
Mr. Dunne was excited about a summer of eating out with friends, but on days when he has hospital shifts, he more frequently brings granola bars from home or eats from the dollar menu at McDonald’s.
“You almost don’t want to get too mad because you know the restaurant owners are also paying a hefty price,” he said. “So you feel empathy, but you’re upset about the price increases.”
At Veniero’s, the staff was juggling an onslaught of pandemic disruptions. A new refrigerator took more than a year to arrive. Butter prices have surged, partly because of high costs for cattle feed, exacerbated by a drought in parts of the United States. A waitress who quit because she was unvaccinated has not yet been replaced.
Robert Zerilli, the fourth-generation owner, said he “had no choice” but to raise prices last month. “We have to make a profit,” he said.
$18 for a Sandwich
During his lunch break on a work-from-home day, Mychal Lopez, 32, walked to Win Son Bakery, a Taiwanese cafe near his apartment in Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg neighborhood. He spent $30.48 — a cold brew coffee for $4, a shrimp scallion pancake sandwich for $18 and a berry rice cake for $6.
The owners of Win Son said they have increased prices to deal with rising food and labor costs, but declined to detail by how much. The price of eggs, an ingredient in several Win Son items, is projected to jump 78 percent this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after a major bird flu outbreak decimated chicken flocks and lowered egg production.
Mr. Lopez said the coffee at Win Son was still cheaper than the typical price in Midtown, where he commutes four days a week to his job for a fashion retailer. The average price of a 16-ounce cold brew around there is $4.88, according to the prices listed at 13 coffee shops.
Mr. Lopez said he has been bringing lunch to the office more after he recently paid $6 for a matcha latte in Midtown. “It’s symptomatic of New York,” he said, sighing. “You’re just like, this is what I need to do to live in the city and get through the day.”
$8 for Blueberries
For years, Margaret Rodgers, a retiree who lives in Astoria, Queens, has shopped for fruits and vegetables at the Union Square farmers’ market in Manhattan. She keeps track of her food budget by filling a pouch with $80 in cash. But lately, the pouch has emptied after just two trips to the market. She was shocked to discover that a pint of berries was now at least $8.
“For the first time in my life, I am really feeling the effects of the increasing cost of food,” said Ms. Rodgers, 79.
Ken Migliorelli, who sells produce at the market from his family farm in Dutchess County, said he has had to raise prices across the board. As the war in Ukraine constrained the supply of oil, high gas prices made it more expensive for Mr. Migliorelli’s trucks to drive produce 100 miles from the Hudson Valley to the city. The price of fertilizer has soared, exacerbated by the supply-chain and export disruptions of the war.
This year, Mr. Migliorelli raised the price of blueberries by $2 to $3; they’re now $8 a pint. A pound of peaches rose to $5, from $3.50 last year.
Zaid Kurdieh of Norwich Meadow Farms, another vendor at the Union Square market, said he is trying to minimize price increases on staples like zucchini and carrots, but plans to raise prices by as much as 30 percent on items that are in demand at high-end restaurants, like baby squash. A pound of cherry tomatoes at his stand is now $12, up from $10 last year.
“I can’t keep up with expenses at the moment,” Mr. Kurdieh said. “I’m not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
$15 for French Fries
After a day of work, Kathy Li met up with a colleague at the Skylark, a cocktail bar near Times Square. She ordered a neon blue gin and vodka cocktail for $20, and then split $15 French fries and $19 chips with guacamole — a price she described as “ridiculous.”
Ms. Li, 30, said the financial firm where she works provides free breakfast, lunch and snacks, which frees up her budget to go out frequently for drinks or dinner.
This summer, the Skylark raised prices on its chips and guacamole by $1.25 after avocado prices skyrocketed. (The United States temporarily suspended avocado imports from the Mexican state of Michoacan after a U.S. inspector there faced a safety threat.)
Because of the pandemic, the bar stayed shut until October 2021, and then the Omicron variant prompted widespread cancellations of holiday parties in December, typically the bar’s most lucrative month, according to David Rabin, a Skylark co-owner.
Mr. Rabin has been trying to recover from those losses while also contending with high employee turnover. He increased wages for some managers and spent more on training new hires for positions like security guards.
Mr. Rabin and the bar’s managers had a monthslong debate about whether to raise alcohol prices by $1 and charge $20 per cocktail, a threshold that Mr. Rabin had long resisted.
“We’re not trying to make anyone feel like we’re trying to fleece them,” Mr. Rabin said. But after noticing similar bars in the area charging at least $20, the bar owners decided to make the move. “It has become, unfortunately, the norm,” he said.