No longer on the menu ... RedBeard bakery's $8 meat pie. Photo: Supplied
Sustainable. Organic. Locally sourced. These four words bulldoze us at every supermarket corner, on every menu and during many a MasterChef ad break. But how happy are we to pay a higher price for such produce?
A Victorian bakery has removed a meat pie from its menu because of complaints the price was too high.
At RedBeard Bakery in Trentham, about an hour north-west of Melbourne, a conversation similar to the following took place at least 10 times a week:
Paying for premium ingredients ... the Jade seafood dumplings with King crab at Mr Wong. Photo: Edwina Pickles
“One pie, thanks mate.”
“No worries. That'll be $8.”
“You're bloody kidding me! That's highway robbery!”
“Our ingredients are sourced locally and we know the farmers. The meat is grass-fed and sustainable. The pastry is made with organic butter and hand-rolled. The pie is put together by hand and cooked in our 19th century Scotch oven. It actually costs us $8 to make, so we're really providing a community service.”
“Whatever, mate. I didn't ask for a sermon.”
Fed up with explaining the price to tourists and tradies alike, RedBeard co-owner and baker Al Reid ceased making the pie in June.
“Every day there were embarrassing, stilted conversations with customers trying to justify why you're charging what is actually quite a reasonable price given the quality of the product and the labour input,” Reid says. “Customers' perceptions of what a pie should cost seem to be based on what you pay at a footy match. Pies ain't pies, just like oils ain't oils.”
Reid says cheap, mass-produced factory pies are often just gravy, corn starch and pastry made with margarine and transfats. They're cheap for a reason.
The removal of RedBeard's pie ignited a flutter of comments on its Facebook page. Most of these lamented the loss and suggested the complainers buy their frozen pies elsewhere.
But where does popular opinion lie?
An article this writer penned about Sydney's best dumplings attracted a wealth of comments on the theme that prices at high-end dumpling houses are absurd when you can purchase 12 dumplings for $4 “down the road”.
This is true. The Chinatowns of Melbourne and Sydney are rife with dumpling houses that trade potstickers by the pound. However, for the most part these little parcels of (admittedly delicious) mystery meat are in no way organic or sustainable. This is why you'll pay more “up the road”.
At Mr Wong, dim sum master Eric Koh uses Alaskan king crab in his noodle wraps (one for $12) and dumplings. It's not cheap, but then, Alaskan king crab fishing isn't easy: it takes place only in autumn; specific size requirements must be met, and only males can be kept.
“I think that in the past many dim sum chefs did not necessarily appreciate the importance of quality ingredients,” Koh says. “It required a vast amount of research to develop my knowledge about the individual ingredients and the skills needed to make the best quality dumplings possible. In the last five to 10 years more people are appreciating the value of dumplings and understanding that you pay for what you get.”
If RedBeard Bakery was selling $8 organic pies in Surry Hills or Collingwood, would it have attracted the same daily criticism? Probably not. Mary's burger bar in Newtown sells cheeseburgers for $14 – and not the type of baby-elephant-sized cheeseburgers that even a Texan would struggle to finish. They're not much bigger than one from Macca's but Mary's is packed to its exposed rafters every night with punters scoffing them down.
The price is justified: Mary's burger patties are made from a mix of high quality, house-smoked brisket, chuck and rump. But a takeaway store charging $14 for a burger this size in country NSW would be unthinkable.
Then there are the hand-cut chips at Hooked Healthy Seafood in Melbourne. Made from locally grown potatoes that are delivered fresh and unfrozen, the chips are big, fat and incredibly tasty. They will also set you back $7.95 for a large serving. That price would be laughed at in a palm-oil-using fish-and-chippery, but at Hooked (which has shops in Fitzroy, Windsor and Hawthorn) the chips have a status approaching legendary.
Despite justified prices and no shortage of customers, user review sites for Hooked host a good deal of “overpriced” and “rip-off” rants – especially comparing it to chippies (again) “down the road”.
Will Australia reach a point where we can all agree that $8 for a pie made from local, organic ingredients is justifiable? Signs are promising. But while buzzwords like "organic" and "sustainable" are bandied around without wider education on the processes and costs associated with producing organic and sustainable food, that day seems some time away.
And Coles selling four frozen pies for $4 doesn't help.