High cost of eating

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

A good friend messaged me yesterday citing food inflation numbers as well as the overall pulse of experts on what is to come. But for his part, my friend was concerned about the domino effect of food inflation for Filipinos.

While everybody focuses on the “sama ng loob” or disgust of ordinary people who have to cut corners just to eat balanced meals, my friend pointed out that the uncontrolled food inflation will immediately hit restaurants, food outlets, carinderias, etc.

We don’t think much of it but based on observations of business owners here and in the US, restaurants and bars have the highest mortality or attrition rate among business types. That leads to suppliers losing customers, farmers losing markets, people losing jobs.

In Barrio Kapitolyo where I reside, long-time operators have observed that the attrition rate can go as high as 60 percent in a bad year. Customers have not returned in the same numbers as they used to dine. People only come out in droves during payday weekends, holidays or special occasions such as graduation. Otherwise, many outlets barely cover operating expenses during weekdays.

Unless people and government proactively address the problem, chances are the domino effect of food inflation won’t be limited to higher prices, smaller servings and limited offerings. Aside from fewer customers and repeats, even the customers will eventually cut back on eating out.

People I know have started to look at their bill, check if it’s correct and then pay up, and splitting the bill is now standard. These are people who never used to do that. But because they now have to pay 50 percent more or double than a year ago, and because inflation impacts, gas, electricity, etc., they have become cost conscious.

What’s interesting is that many diners now skip the soup or salad or appetizer as well as sharing a serving for dessert. A lot of people don’t order drinks, juices or beverages because it’s common knowledge that “drinks,” alcoholic or otherwise, are the income generating items on the menu. Sadly, I actually see people bring their own juice or coffee containers while meeting up with others at Starbucks or Coffee Bean.

My wife Karen shared that if we want to help food outlets and small businesses, try to pay cash for your purchases or consumables. They can save as much as 3 percent by avoiding handling charges for credit cards. The outlet also gets their money upfront.

Even senior citizens who get 20 percent discount actively add the 20 percent amount into the tip for the restaurant staff. People I know who own restaurants tell me that while the senior discount helps elders, it often becomes a burden to business owners.

Slowly but surely people have cut back their regular once a week social gathering down to once a month. On a somewhat “positive” side, people are now talking about home entertainment as well as “potluck” dinners at home. Given how times have changed, there are willing hosts because guests now offer to help clean up or do the dishes.

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So, on a social level, costs might drive us back to home entertainment, but it still does not help businesses that are all in the supplier “food chain” of restaurants, hotels, carinderias and homes. This is where many advocates push for promoting urban gardening or “backyard farming” wherever possible and applicable.

I must confess that I am a “serial failure” in urban gardening and backyard farming. Having said that, I have also discovered key points that have contributed to my failure as well as that of a thousand others.

To begin with, there is a general misconception of what urban gardening and backyard farming is supposed to be, as well as its size/area and content. Urban gardening and backyard farming operate on the concept of limited area or limited volume.

It is not meant to be a “commercialized” or corporate endeavor where you grow and sell volumes or gross. This misunderstanding is what causes critics to discourage people, communities and businesses from getting into such projects. The activity and produce are “beneficial” but not necessarily intended as “commercially profitable.”

From experience, a garden or plot is not limited to size alone but your level of expertise, and especially your time and strength. Having a garden on the 5th floor/rooftop level under full sun requires strength and work.

You can plant all you want but you won’t grow all you want because of weather, soil quality, water and fertilization, etc. Find someone to teach you or hire someone to show you or spend a day in someone’s vegetable patch or watch YouTube videos.

Your family of three or five can’t eat talong or pechay three times a day for 30 days. You need to control how much you plant based on what you can consume, and what you can actually grow. The common mistake is to plant a seed pack and end up wasting what grows. Successful gardeners follow a planting calendar as well as list of produce regularly needed.

After years of jumping in head first, I have now slowly restarted my urban garden project practically, one to six plants at a time, observing what works. Among vegetables and fruit trees, there are regulars and dependable types such as kalamansi, moringa or malunggay, eggplant, bananas, pechay, kangkong and ampalaya. Get familiar.

From what I’ve observed, restaurants, small hotels and resorts, even homeowners and retirees, have benefitted from setting up a rooftop garden/urban garden in a nearby vacant lot. Some people have even turned their gardens into a local attraction. For now, let’s fight food inflation to bring down our food costs.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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