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Pastanomics 101

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By James Geneau

It's back. On January 3rd, 2009 at 9:39am, Gremolata's staff of global food researchers officially called what was becoming more and more apparent each day. The once forbidden food of the decade, loaded with carbohydrates and calories, was back with aggressive force. As one of the cheapest and easiest dishes by which to feed the masses, pasta has made a stupendous comeback onto the plates of North Americans.

It has been several years since pasta witnessed the growth it has recently received in consumption. After the Atkins carb craze eight years ago, pasta (along with bread) were banished from the supermarket and kitchen table. Restaurants stopped serving it as it simply would not sell - unless of course they were an Italian American eatery where the option was simply to close.

Up until the Atkins craze, pasta was everywhere. Nigella ate it in almost every episode and millions of people started making quick and delicious pasta dishes of linguine with fresh vegetables and olive oil, homemade macaroni and cheese, and new variations on lasagna. It was a staple in every kitchen and restaurant. Then attitudes changed. Carbs were out and restaurant patrons started questioning the value in pasta. After all, thanks to Nigella and Jamie, everyone now knew how to make it at home and could not find value in ordering it out on the town. Why would you pay $25.00 for pasta when you could make it home exactly the way you like it for $5.00.

But the pasta craze has started again and if you look at the signs, it is not a surprise. With the economy going south, what better ingredient would budget-conscious families and restaurant patrons choose? American Italian Pasta Inc. has certainly benefited from the surge in popularity. Even with rising base ingredient costs, the largest manufacturer of dry pasta in the United States saw an increase in sales last year of 43% while their profit tripled. Why? Americans are eating more pasta and large-scale institutional food purveyors are serving more of it to help manage costs during these tough economic times. Hospitals, cafeterias, schools, chain restaurants, hotels, and other major food buyers across America are moving to pasta for its lower-cost and ease of preparation. It takes a lot less money and resources to serve pasta to 500 guests than a pan seared ahi tuna with spring vegetables.

But the economy is also forcing pasta to become a logical choice for the smaller restaurant owner and chef, not just the big institutions. On a recent vacation in Florida, I noticed that three of the main courses at one of my favorite local restaurants were pasta dishes. I was surprised as starches are not exactly big in California-inspired cuisine. When I asked, I was told bluntly that it was cheaper. Their patrons were no longer paying $20.00-$30.00 for a main. Instead, they needed a cheaper option on the menu and they needed more than one to ensure patrons would not come across as the 'cheap guy' in the group when ordering. So the chef started to incorporate two to three pasta dishes in the $12.00 range. The response from patrons was overwhelming.

For the restaurant, the margins are the same. Cheaper pasta dishes can sell for less but still have a decent percentage return in terms of profit. The economics are pretty simple. When you used to have a restaurant serving 200 plates a night at $40.00 each and now have one serving 20 plates a night, you start looking at your fire insurance policy a little more closely, specifically the clause related to arson. I heard that in Vancouver, this is exactly what has happened at some major city dining landmarks. The people simply are not there and it is not because they don't like to dine-out, they simply cannot justify the price. So, how do you bring back the people? Lower the price per plate of course? How do you do this? Start adding pasta.

For my favorite restaurant in Florida, this is exactly what the chef did. When the number of plates fell dramatically, they had two choices - cut staff and wait it out a few months, or close shop. They opted to wait it out without reducing the staff too much by adjusting their menu to match the economic climate. And so, they were able to move from 20 plates a night to 100 per night by offering flavorful and delicious creations at a lower price point. The only ingredient they went cheap on was pasta.

But in the overall weekly scheme of plate profitability, pasta can actually allow for margins to balance themselves out. For example, many restaurants can still serve lower-margin meat dishes in a week if their pasta dishes are there to soak up the bleeding - pardon the pun. Lower-margin dishes can still survive and the restaurant's reputation for superior culinary genius can remain intact so long that a few high-margin dishes are there to balance out the overall weekly profitability. No restaurant will be written up about their pasta, but the addition of it to the menu can keep the doors open so they can still turn out the more creative culinary masterpieces they are known for.

The impact on the consumer of a lower cost meal will drive overall spending as well. When a main course goes from $30.00 to $15.00, it does not necessarily mean that their overall spending will drop by the same amount. This is basic consumerism. North Americans will always look at ways to maximize their spending before spending less. By choosing the cheaper pasta dish, they are more likely to buy a glass of wine, or a starter to get the most out of their spending. The reality is that most consumers will spend the same amount; they just want to feel like they are getting more for their precious dollar.

And so, North Americans have begun to re-accept pasta as a means by which to stretch that precious dollar. Whether it is at home or on the town, the lower cost staple of the late 90s has snuck back into our conscious as 'worth it'. Now don't get me wrong, I am pretty sure that classic Spaghetti and Meatballs will never make themselves onto the menu at New York's hottest restaurants. But don't be surprised if you start seeing more and more contemporary pasta dishes. As a consumer, embrace it. If you used to go out four times a week and have cut back lately, why not make two of the meals pasta-focused? After all, true consumerism would demand that you do this. You then have a few extra dollars saved up for that awesome Friday or Saturday night steak, fish, or shellfish creation. Better yet, a bottle of wine. And after all, the end of the week is when you need it anyways!


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