Are the $5 cheeseburgers gone for good?
At the start of the pandemic, Mike Aldridge sold $4 burgers on his porch in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood — his way, he says, of doing what he could to help people s come out of it in difficult times. Before COVID, Aldridge cooked at some of Portland’s fanciest hotel restaurants. And when word spread about his categorically BS-free burgers, an offer came to bring them west. HAround 2020, Aldridge returned, burgers in tow, and opened Mid-City Smash Burger (MCSB), a food cart named after his former stomping ground. The Pink City leaned in, eating until 300 “smashy wood” from the SE Stark cart per day.
In the new, slightly higher environment of MCSB, backed by a punk rock aesthetic and an abbreviated name reminiscent of CBGB, burgers are now $5. The number has become a symbol of the company. An Instagram meme post of Kanye holding a legal notepad read, “MCSB serves the best $5 cheeseburger in Portland. My next song will be about smashy bois and I’ll pay them royalties. With Ye’s approval, MCSB quickly expanded, opening a second cart in the North Williams Cartside pod.
Fast forward to July 10 of this year, and a black and white photo of Aldridge hits the MCSB grid. He wears a straw hat and Hawaiian shirt, rides a skateboard, and holds a spray-painted $5 cheeseburger sign. The in-memoriam caption reads, “This will be the last week for $5 smashy boi.”
“It was one of my things that I tried to establish from the start, that it’s never going to be more than five dollars,” says Aldridge. When the MCSB opened in January 2o21, Aldridge had good margins on the $5 burger. Despite the cart’s continued success (his third truck opened in Bend last week), he says five bucks is “quite impractical with the current prices of things.”
Many restaurants have taken to social media to show the rising costs of the products their businesses depend on. For one customer, the sticker shock of a lunch that costs more than it ever has made headlines about inflation and food shortages caused by distant wars. Business owners are in a lose-lose situation: their costs are rising, but raising menu prices to compensate could alienate customers.
“If something goes up 50 or 75 percent, I can’t increase my prices by the same percentage,” says Aaron Tomasko, who sells nostalgia-infused latkes with his wife, Rachel Brashear, at the food cart. Sweet Lorraine. They end up taking home less, a trend according to Tomasko that is consistent with their friends in the industry. “Last year we paid ourselves less than five dollars an hour,” he says.
The most notable cost increase of late might be fryer oil. MCSB’s fries and “nuggs” don’t happen without it, and you can bet Lorraine’s latke recipe doesn’t work with airfryers. There’s no less sexy or marketable ingredient, but frying oil is as essential as towels and cleaning supplies. And just like towels and cleaning supplies, no one wants to pay for it.
Vegetable oil is used in everything from cosmetics to fuels to chemical refining and, of course, an array of culinary applications. A South American drought led to a poor soybean harvest this year, and a spike in sunflower oil prices, due to its almost exclusively Russian and Ukrainian production, pushed up the already high cost of vegetable oils by 45% in one year, and 150 percent in the last two years, according to the Washington Post.
To complicate matters further: after the COVID calculations, chefs and owners are more aware than ever of the need to provide a living wage for their staff. Restaurants have always operated on extremely thin profit margins (5% on the best days), and inflation only exacerbates the problem.
“There’s a million things playing into it, and it’s a lot deeper than two years,” Aldridge says. The conversation surrounding it, however, he says, is relatively new. “That didn’t happen much five years ago. It was ‘it is what it is’. But it got so bad so fast that we had to talk about it.
Lorraine’s and MCSB place accessibility at the heart of their concerns. “From the start, it was just me wanting to deliver something that 99% of people could get,” Aldridge says.
“The day I can’t feed a hungry neighbor is the day we’re done,” says Tomasko.
That said, Aldridge found Portlanders understood the change. In fact, the now $6 wood smashy has attracted a surge in business. And comments on the heartfelt Instagram post applauded the change: “You all deserve every penny you charge.”
Tomasko says Lorraine hasn’t had a negative reaction from customers to higher prices either. However, prices were adjusted based on what they felt comfortable charging, not what they needed to make ends meet. “They don’t really compare to the increase in our costs. We just decided to do a slight increase in all areas, instead of saying, well, we’re using oil for that, so we have to double that, You know ? “
Aldridge says he’s glad he ripped the band-aid off when he did: “Having a five-dollar burger was going to be suicide next year…we would have imploded.”
But how far can a dollar go? Does a 20% increase solve the problem? Aldridge says they’ve been a nickel-and-dime business from the start, so the dollar is more important than it may be for other models. And if MCSB sells about 300 burgers in a day, that adds up.
“We still offer the same great meal and the same great time, it only costs a few dollars more now,” says Aldridge. “We’re sorry, but we have to make a living and we have to pay our employees.”