Letters for the Week of April 10, 2013 

Readers sound off on street food, tech money, and the Oakland city council.

"Street Food Grows Up," Taste, 3/27

It's the Prices, Period

I read "Street Food Grows Up" with some interest, particularly because it dealt with The Ramen Shop and my own position about that restaurant and its prices. More on that later, but it was the comments of Preeti Mistry — equating folks' resistance to her pricing as simple racism — that got me a bit perturbed. Racism? Ridiculous, I say. There have been plenty enough restaurants where I have paid somewhat exorbitant prices for South Asian cuisine, so I firmly believe that, at least in the "foodie" culture, racism simply doesn't enter into the equation for determining whether or not to attend a given restaurant.

It's the price point. Period.

Look, my wife and I earn decently enough, got a couple of kids through college, saw a mom through her final days and the attendant costs, and have always enjoyed eating out at fine dining places throughout the Bay Area. When The Ramen Shop opened for business, I followed its opening with great interest, followed the reviews, checked out the varied Yelp comments, but honestly, I simply have chosen to forgo paying $15 or more for a bowl of ramen. As for Mistry's restaurant, wherever it is, please let her know that I won't pay $16 for a hamburger by the young Turk ex-Chez Panisse chefs, much less $13 for three vegetarian Indian sliders, either. No racism involved — it's maybe just the fact that, now that I'm on more of a budget as I close in on retirement, that excess is still simply that: excess.

Still, as a consumer and a simple home cook, I'm working my way through my feelings about this new middle ground where professional chefs leave their trademarked high-end restaurants and break out into the area of street food. My problem is, of course, that I've been all over the world, and my general sense of street food fare is, it's cheap, it's quick, and it's hopefully tasty. Emphasis on cheap, let me say again.

Now, with all the awareness being brought to bear on chic new mid-level restaurants by established and adventurous chefs looking to make their mark, we as consumers are being asked to seriously consider all the hidden costs of opening and running a restaurant, from sourcing foodstuffs locally and ethically to being aware that the back-of-house folks are getting a living wage, health care, etc. Yes, I get all that. I understand and appreciate that there are these costs accruing that have been ignored and pushed under the rug for years.

I realize that, yes, I do have a choice. I face it every day that I go to Berkeley Bowl West or Mi Tierra Market or Trader Joe's in Berkeley. Do I buy commercial produce? Organic? Bulk flour? How was that steer raised and butchered? Did the workers get a fair wage for doing it? How about that artisanal cheese? Organic milk? Were the sheep read bedtime stories at night of humans leaping over a fence? Did that chicken experience free-range and free-of-antibiotic feed? Were my coffee beans bought at Peet's fair trade? What about that chocolate I bought?

So many questions, and we as consumers are entering into a very different world of "aware consumption," notwithstanding the ridiculous (and funny) portrayals of this on Portlandia. When we eat out, when we buy our produce and meats and such, we make a decision every day to support our own health and the economic livelihood of people in other countries by making ethical choices.

It's a pretty heavy process to carry through any restaurant's door or in front of a meat market display every day. Most of us want to remain blissfully unaware of the ramifications of our decision, and this article was certainly informative about all the secret costs facing these young entrepreneurs who are opening up businesses, trying to do the local, ethical, fair thing for their employees and customers. I appreciate it, even if it makes me crazy, and guilty, or nervous about my food choices.

I buy commercial produce because it's what I can realistically afford. I buy commercial meats and fish because it's what I can afford. I tend to eat more vegetables than I do meats and fish because it's a healthier choice to make. I go out to restaurants whose prices I can afford. As for The Ramen Shop or Juhu Beach Club or Hawker Fare, all of which seem to specialize in street food that is traditionally cheap, I am both unwilling and, to a degree, unable, to pay a premium to support all their overhead in order to support their ethical and fair businesses. This doesn't mean I don't wish them well, and I expect those out there who are well-heeled will continue to keep these places afloat — and more power to them. Bottom line is this: I can't afford it and I'm not willing to pay excess bucks for a plate of food, regardless of the pedigree of the chefs or their sourcing of quality ingredients. I'd like to be able to afford to pay these prices on a more regular basis, but it's not in the cards, unless I win the lottery or come into a pile of an inheritance that would allow me to do my part to support these business and the hidden lives behind them.

Chris Juricich, Oakland

One Tough Business Model

Valid point about less resistance to sixteen-buck burgers than fifteen-dollar noodle plates. And any restaurant that is paying high wages and benefits to full-time employees has to charge 25 percent more than the vast majority of restaurants that don't. Even more if they don't have a full bar.

But the disposable income of young foodies and food-oriented older people in Oakland just isn't the same as in SF or Palo Alto or Berkeley. People have lots of reasons to live in Oakland. One of them is that it's cheaper than SF and Berkeley.

There are hecka lot of underemployed residents here who can afford a $3 doughnut but not a $15 plate of ramen except on special occasions. That's not racism.

Serving affordable high-quality food and paying decent wages and benefits in brick-and-mortar restaurants is extremely difficult to pull off anywhere. That is one tough business model.

Leonard Raphael, Oakland

The Pop-Up Problem

In Juhu's case, I think some people are remembering the prices when it was a pop-up in San Francisco. The full-size sandwiches were less than $10 and seemed bigger than two of the current slider-sized pavs — probably the equivalent of the three-pav combo at $13.

That's not to say it's not worth it for the quality, and I'm sure cost dynamics have changed with the permanent location.

Andrew Chang, Oakland


"The Case for Censure," Seven Days, 3/27

Dig Deeper

The audit did not go far enough. Do we really think that these are the only two and these were the only ways and only times? We should go back and review every time a large amount of money, especially redevelopment money, was flowing.

Don Macleay, Oakland


"The Bacon-Wrapped Economy," Feature, 3/20

Disappointing

While many of the points made here align with my personal experience, I am dismayed to find the "evidence" used in this article equally anecdotal. Employment of some pertinent (the charity to wealth comparison made is fairly irrelevant in the context of aggregate tech generosity) empirical analysis in lieu of this sensationalist verbosity would afford our author the potential to be taken seriously by the community she assails. 

Disappointing.

Channing Allen, San Francisco

Do Your Homework

Maybe the author should have done more math homework.

I do not disagree with many of the points made in this article. I am a 28-year-old female in tech who lives this depicted lifestyle: I live between AQ and Sightglass (I have met investors there), my next Burning Man project is a slide made from irrigation pipe, and am figuring out how to dress "Silicon Valley business casual chic" for jumping between business meetings and places with heavy machinery.  I'll go on: My only real threat in life is a mugging in SOMA, I make more money than my parents, and attend parties to specifically target the most important person in the room and try to find a genuine connection. The one question I beg the author is: Why can't the author feel happy for me? Why do I have to feel bad, why do I owe something more?

I was the kid who did my math homework in school, got easy As in class, and was made fun of for it. I was the kid called "four eyes." I was the kid who had trouble making friends, and couldn't figure out why. I was the kid who read books. I was the kid who dreamed of getting out of my boring middle-class, blue-collar town. I was the kid who fought through two engineering degrees to make the salary I want. I was the kid whose mom told me I wasn't smart enough to be an engineer. I am the only kid who could help my parents with a good retirement.

I am living the life I had hoped for myself. The Bay Area is a haven for the geeks, nerds, smarty-pants, artists, dreamers, activists, storytellers, and weirdos. We are all with common company here, we can be ourselves, and we can change the world. I decided when I moved here to not let common thinking, working-class-family kind of thinking, drag me down and stop me. The only thing I feel I owe society is to tell little girls to do their math homework; that it's culturally acceptable to stay interested in science; and to get a degree in computer science, math, science, or engineering if they want a fun, awesome, and exciting lifestyle for themselves, too.

The software positions are open and nobody is stopping others from joining this world/lifestyle. Just feel good about doing math homework.

Erin Rapacki, San Francisco

Remarkable

A remarkably well-written article on an emotionally charged subject. 

Really well done. You educated and enlightened without judging or sinking into cliched archetypes of rich and poor. 

Can't wait to read more by you. 

Frank Barbieri, San Francisco

Lots of Words, Little Insight

This feels like so much effort with so little insight.

"Bubbles" are not some new invention, they're part of the cycle of capitalism. We grow and contract in a cycle. The trick is trying to make sure the retractions aren't so drastic that they destroy more than the growth cycles created. And yes, people lose their jobs and livelihoods in the process. And our country is wealthy enough that we should figure out a way to address that (which probably has a lot to do with education, not just charity). Frankly, that kind of "philanthropy" feels more important to me than support for the SF Symphony. And there's room for both.

Speaking of which, many of your examples of corporate largesse are laughable. You haven't scratched the surface of the true excesses (CEO salaries, anyone?) while you've tried to shock us with things like expensive bikes and buckets of Smirnoff Ice. Luxuries, for sure, but hardly the sole domain of the ultra-rich. And I once flew half-way around the world for a weekend — because there was a fare sale and a last-minute flight to Paris was $400. Does that make me a billionaire?

Yes, the world is changing. The way people donate money is changing. The things people are interested in are changing. We don't want to lose what's valuable about the past, but we don't get there by freezing time or lamenting the loss of some golden age that never existed anyway. You have to think of it like surfing: You can't pause the wave, but you can get on top of it. If you face it and argue otherwise, you're just going to get a lung full of water.

I also think the loathing of the restaurant and personal services industries in this article is totally misguided. Not that all these services are ideal, equitable, or even a good use of money. But you know what else these people are? Small-businesspeople. They looked at a changing world, considered their talents, skills, and passions, and found a way to make a living doing it. And probably created some jobs in the process.

Yes, rents have gotten inflated and there are private buses in SF. And there are some things about that that are problematic. But those buses also deliver loads of cash into our city's economy. It goes to taxes. It goes to small-businesspeople. And these people live here. The services that are created to serve them are sometimes silly, but often they're great, and make the city a more vibrant, livable place for all of us.

Gentrification is tricky. It has its problems. It also has its benefits. It means the local economy is growing. It means that families who struggled to buy in a tight housing market are getting rewarded for their investment. You can't stand still. The world doesn't work that way. Economics don't work that way. We have our highs, we take our licks, hopefully we get smarter and do better the next time. But you have to figure out a way to make the change more livable without bailing against the tide.

This article is high on word count but low on understanding of what needs to happen to really make our communities better.

Alex Beckstead, San Francisco

The Surgeon Double Standard

Is the original sin of these young riches simply not to have studied law or medicine, but being merely geeks?

Such high incomes are socially expected and accepted for surgeons or lawyers, but "undeserved" for spewing out code days and nights?

Jean-Christophe Mathae,

Labastide-Beauvoir, France

Corrections

Our April 3 cover story, "Real Warriors," misstated the month in which Golden State Warriors fans booed team co-owner Joe Lacob. It was March 2012, not December 2012.

Our April 3 Seven Days column, "Newsgathering Was Never Free," stated that the OC Weekly in Southern California had announced that it was erecting a paywall. The paper's announcement was an April Fool's joke.

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