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Lunchflation: Ouch!

I was a bit startled recently when I went to order a breakfast sandwich in a popular restaurant in downtown New London.

There were no prices anywhere in sight, not on the blackboard with the day's specials written in chalk or on the big overhead printed menu board.

When I asked the person behind the counter how much the food costs, he said it depends. I would have to ask about a specific item if I wanted to know before I ordered.

"It changes every day," he told me.

Yikes.

This, so far, was the most head-spinning moment for me in our new era of inflation. Prices are going up so fast, eateries don't have time to write them down.

It turns out, lunchflation is a thing, a new sticker shock with a name for workers going back to the office. If gas for the commute or the cost of new clothes to replace home work sweatpants don't get you, the cost of eating lunch out will.

Restaurants, responding to a two-year bad run from the COVID-19 pandemic, are now scrambling trying to keep up with food price increases and labor shortages. I feel more worried for these businesses than most others in this inflation surge.

They never really had time to recover from the last storm, a punishing pandemic and shutdowns, before the next one hit.

This should be their moment to get their businesses back on track, with the general easing of the pandemic. Instead, inflation is almost certainly going to keep many customers away.

The payments company Square released the recent results of a study of lunch prices in major American cities and came up with increases like 18% for wraps and 14% for sandwiches since early 2021.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, menu prices have had their largest 12-month increase since 1981.

I'm pretty sure I've seen percentage increases greater than that around here. That small, toasted takeout grinder that cost me $12 last week — did I mention small? — was no more than $8 a few months ago.

I recently ordered a takeout tuna sandwich that was $6.99 before the pandemic, and still listed online at that price, but was actually $11.99 when I picked it up.

Such sharp price increases are almost certainly going to elevate the ritual of eating out — even a simple lunch — from treat to luxury.

Like most people, I haven't seen an 18% increase in pay, and something has to give, especially when the cost of so many necessities — clothes, gas, food for cooking at home — are going up.

I've heard some complaints about price gouging from people who think that businesses are using the obvious inflation to masquerade price increases at the retail level that are much higher than the higher prices they are paying wholesale.

I doubt that.

I suspect restaurants, already reeling from two years of stagnant trade, are doing the best they can to cope and generally raising prices to manage but not scare away customers.

Maybe we are heading toward a new leaner era of eating out, with smaller portions, cheaper ingredients and more self-serve participation, like busing your table and fetching your own coffee.

I think we all missed the ritual of eating out when the pandemic so suddenly snatched it away from us.

And it will be hard to give it up now — just as it has become such a reassuring return to normalcy —  no matter what it costs.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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