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Seattle Restaurants Are Expensive. How Big a Problem Is That?

Diners and restaurant owners are both feeling squeezed

A blurry picture of a hundred-dollar bill Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images
Harry Cheadle is the editor of Eater Seattle.

I was chatting with someone a while ago and they asked what I thought of Seattle’s restaurant scene. Blah blah blah, I said, and they replied, Isn’t it expensive to eat out here, though?

The cost of restaurant food has become a pretty common complaint in Seattle, and it’s true, eating out costs more than it once did. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of “food away from home” in the Seattle area has gone up 10 percent in the last year, while “food at home” has only gone up 5.7 percent.

Jacob Vigdor, a University of Washington professor of public policy, explained the economics behind this price bump to me. One factor, he says, is that the cost of ingredients has gone up for both home cooks and restaurants. But restaurants also have to pay labor costs, and those have shot up by a lot. Restaurant work is often done by young people and recent immigrants, but declining birth rates and immigration rates mean there are fewer of these workers in the labor force. Restaurants have had to offer higher wages for these demanding jobs as a result, and sometimes are so understaffed they have to close entirely some days — while still having to pay the same amount of rent, another factor that might cause them to raise prices.

Vigdor doesn’t view high restaurant prices as a major societal problem, however. The point of governmental food policy, he says, is to “prevent people from starving.” If people have to cook at home instead of going out, that’s not a great hardship. And it’s actually a pretty good situation for those in-demand restaurant workers, who don’t have to put up with low wages or crappy working environments that they might have tolerated in the past. If restaurants end up being forced to close because of changed economic conditions, Vigdor says, it might be what economists call “creative destruction.”

That sounds a little callous to me, but I take his point. Maybe restaurants should be luxuries. Don’t we want high-quality, ethically sourced food and livable wages for service workers? Okay, then we’re not going to be paying $5 for lunch. Seattle is an expensive city but many Seattleites can afford to eat out, service charges and all: The median income in the city is $110,000. At Eater Seattle I try to recommend restaurants at all price points, but some culinary experiences are available only to the wealthy, and there’s no way around that. (Would you really want to eat cheap omakase, if it existed?)

What bothers me about rising restaurant prices is that I worry that more types of cuisine will become inaccessible to low-income people. If you feel like you can’t even afford banh mi and teriyaki on a regular basis, if every hot new restaurant seems like it’s for other, wealthier people, it’s going to feel like Seattle is no longer a city for you.