Real Food Costs Money: Sandwich Edition

click to enlarge The Station Cafe - Courtesy
The Station Cafe
Editor's Note: The following is The Big Spoon, an opinion column on San Antonio's food and drink scene.

In my third week as a columnist, I tried encouraging the general San Antonio public to eat out during the week. Essentially, Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday brunches are tasked with making up the bulk of a restaurant’s revenue, and weekdays are depressingly slow. Admittedly, the headline (“Your Favorite Restaurant Is Closing Tomorrow — And It’s Your Fault”) was a bit aggressive, and some took it quite literally.

“Stop charging $13 for a fucking sandwich if you want to stay in business. Fine dining, my ass... it’s a fucking sandwich,” one commenter said.

Which made me wonder how often we find $13 sandwiches in town. I scoured a few menus to find something that would come close to that price tag. Sandwiches ran the delicious gamut. Station Café kept Southtowners happy with sandwiches that max out at $5.99; Zito’s keeps bringing people back with $7-$9.75 sandos; Dignowity Meats prices theirs between $6 and $9; WD Deli’s sandwiches hover between $7.50 and $8.50; Fratello’s keeps theirs between $11.49 and $12.89; at Pam’s Patio Kitchen, the sandwiches linger between $7 for a half or $12 for a whole.

In restaurants where sandwiches aren’t ordered at a counter, prices tend to crawl up slowly. Battalion, the newest restaurant in Southtown to offer lunch, serves five sizable sandwiches on their lunch menu that cap off at $10 (with a side of fries); Grayze on Grayson offers four non-burger sammies ranging from $12 for a five-cheese grilled cheese to a $15 blackened trout “po boi”; overstuffed NY deli-style sandwiches at Max & Louie’s Diner range from $11.95 to $14.95; Jason Dady offers a crabcake sandwich at Shuck Shack for $16; finally, at Esquire Tavern, chef Brooke Smith and co. offer sandwiches ranging from a $13 carnitas torta to a $17 Thanksgiving Sandwich.

Restaurant economics are a nuanced beast. Customers aren’t solely paying for the cost of the sandwich (fret not, The Big Spoon will tackle burgers, ramen, etc., going forward) at face value. This may seem obvious, but restaurant owners have to factor in cost of goods, labor, overhead and profit.

When we compare two sandwiches priced at either end of the spectrum, in this case Station Café’s garlic roast beef and Esquire Tavern’s Thanksgiving sandwich, we’re basically comparing apples and oranges.

For Jon Rowe, who co-owns Station Café with wife Stacie, the restaurant runs like a well-oiled machine because of how it evolved. It first opened in 2006, inside a 300 square-foot space that’s “smaller than most people’s bathrooms,” Rowe says. The store at the corner of St. Mary’s and King William St. began as a pizza-by-the-slice joint, but his daily sandwich specials soon overtook the demand for pizza. As Rowe puts it, he and Stacie lucked out on its current location, which is also 10 times the size of the original, after a period of thinking they’d have to close down and relocate entirely to make the café work.

Rowe and his small staff of 11 employees roll in at 8 a.m. and start working on sauces, all of which are made in-house, as are the bread rolls, which helps reduce costs, and cut out middlemen. Because of his small staff and their efficiency, Rowe’s been able to keep prices at Station Café down for the past five years, though that will change in the coming weeks. While apprehensive about sharing a specific date, Rowe did hint that the cost for a sandwich will increase in the coming months.

“Everything goes up every year — lease, insurance, payroll,” Rowe said.
Down the road and directly on the River Walk (which means a pricier lease), sits The Esquire Tavern, a James Beard Award semifinalist in 2017. Reopened as a craft cocktail bar and restaurant in 2011*, The Esquire is known for using locally sourced ingredients and humanely raised proteins as well as helping launch San Antonio’s thriving cocktail scene.

Turkey for the Thanksgiving sammie comes from Smart Chicken, a Nebraska company that’s certified organic and certified humane. The produce hails from Bluebonnet Farms in Bellville, while some is sourced through The Truckin’ Tomato.

Chef Brooke Smith uses a software program that allows her to breakdown how much an ounce of aioli costs, as well as every other item made in her scratch kitchen. The Thanksgiving Sandwich uses a total of six items made by as many as seven people, depending on who did what. She’s able to track costs across the board for the bar, and its sister shops, the luxurious basement bar known as Downstairs and El Mirador. Being off by as little as three percent in food costs could be an expensive mistake.

Both of these sandwiches offer quality experiences whether you’re wanting to dash in between meetings for that garlicky roast beef, or want to relive the holidays while sitting on the River Walk and sipping a classic daiquiri. It’s about what you value and are willing to pay for. I guess there’s always Subway?

— Jess Elizarraras, [email protected]

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

*The Esquire reopened in 2011, not 2012 as previously listed.