NJ customers dine out less as inflation rattles local eateries

Last week, Negla Badr stopped at a restaurant in Princeton for breakfast. She ordered a plate of French toast. It was $22.

“Why does French toast cost $22? I was shocked,” Badr, business development manager at Barnes and Noble, said in exasperation. “I eat out a lot on my travels and the cost of my food has gone up a lot.”

Badr is one of countless consumers in New Jersey feeling the inflation, especially in restaurants and grocery stores. Industry experts estimate that commodity prices have risen 40-60% due to supply chain and post-pandemic issues. New Jersey restaurants have reported even higher spikes in some food costs: Beef, eggs and avocados are all double what they were a year or two ago; chicken is up 300%.

While many restaurants are forced to raise menu prices to make ends meet, some New Jerseyans say they’ve cut back on dining out or given up on luxury altogether. They are also looking for ways to save in supermarkets, although they also find problems there.

“Everything went up,” said John Woodworth, a customer sitting at Vicki’s Diner in Westfield earlier this month. “The bottle of seltzer used to be 99 cents and now it’s $1.70. I buy less and make smaller portions.

Vicki’s Diner has a loyal following. During the pandemic, their customers launched a GoFundMe campaign and raised $40,000 to keep the restaurant open.

But two years later, owner Helen Rentoulis is caught in a different vice as she tries to balance her budget.

“We don’t want to raise our prices, but we have no choice,” she said. “Our supplies have increased by 50-100% on some items, and we haven’t increased our menu prices for about a year. I just hope our customers will understand.

The lunch crowd at Vicki’s Diner in Westfield clings to it.Karim Shamsi Basha

Rentoulis doesn’t see any reduction in her supply prices any time soon, but she and her husband Peter have a special relationship with their customers. “I am so grateful to our customers who have been with us for a long time. You see their children grow and they become yours. We are like a family here.

Dana Lancellotti, president and CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, knows that restaurants big and small face conundrums: “(Restaurants) either have to bear the extra costs and end up not make a lot of profit, or pass it on to the consumer, resulting in lower numbers. … It’s a new normal, and I don’t see prices coming back down anytime soon.”

Keep the faith

Ester Mallach and Ryan Farrell will continue to produce quality food at Ester’s Treats despite rising prices.Karim Shamsi Basha

In Cranford, Ester Mallach and her partner Ryan Farrell opened Ester’s Treats Bakery in July and soon faced escalating costs.

“Rising prices have affected us, but we refuse to pass it on to our customers,” Mallach said. “We manage in other ways.”

Mallach and Farrell cut some expenses by planting a vegetable and herb garden right outside their bakery, stocking the store — which also serves savory dishes — with squash, tomatoes, peppers and more.

out of the garden

Ester Mallach has found a way to preserve and use fresh ingredients with her vegetable and herb garden outside her bakery, Ester’s Treats.Karim Shamsi Basha

They also run a stand at the Scotch Plains and Summit Farmers Markets, and they haven’t raised their prices there either.

“A lot of our Farmers Market customers are older and on fixed incomes, so we don’t want to affect them too much,” Farrell said. “We are still selling a lot, which helps. Last weekend the line was 30-40 deep for two hours.

Craig Sumberg, a regular at the bakery, comes every Thursday to read the paper and have breakfast.

“I don’t go out as much as I used to,” Sumberg admitted. “I eat more at home and buy fewer supplies. But places like this family bakery should be supported because they do what they love and give back to the community.

Jessica Romero, another Ester client, noted the effects of inflation on her family.

“We have five kids who are growing up and not ordering from the kids’ menu anymore,” Romero said. “Rising prices in restaurants affect us considerably. We cook more at home, which is not popular with children, but they have no choice.

Even Mallach and Farrell themselves admit they have cut back on dining out.

“We ate at the restaurant a few weeks ago with our daughter (six) Winter and our dinner bill was $70.”

Karim Shamsi-Basha can be reached at kshamsi-basha@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter & instagram. To find NJ.com on Facebook.

Gladys T. Hensley