Thoughts on value

Just because you can get away with paying only $1 for dumplings, should you?

I wish I could say I intentionally took most of August off, but unfortunately, the time away from this newsletter had more to do with episodic depression, which happened to be exacerbated by a few things, including this gem.

Anyway, coming back to what I wanted to talk about. Recalling my discussion of authenticity in food in which Goffman’s actors and their roles are ones that have been established by a mutually agreed upon set of conventions. These agreed upon norms happen to incorporate the ideas of mainstream culture—and one of these ideas that I want to touch upon is that of perceived value.

Apply the concept of value to food, and I can only begin to tell you the number of statements that I read where a dish’s value is tied to a culturally accepted sentiment. And it is these deeply rooted notions that inadvertently result in gatekeeping cultures and their respective dishes from a going beyond a certain price threshold. Or more simply: the expectation that certain foods are always meant to be “cheap”, and that for them to command more than a certain price tag is impossible to fathom.

Here are a few examples from Yelp and Google Reviews that I pulled up from July:

“There are so many cheaper options around.”

“You can easily get ten dumplings for a dollar.”

“The food is so overpriced”

These comments come from everyone, including fellow second-generation folks, who have accepted that dumplings, in particular, have a price ceiling that they cannot pass. The base line is so often referred to, especially with quotes of specific price points, because it has become a presumed authority.

If dumplings are such a “cheap” item in the food hierarchy, are they also really that inexpensive to make?

Math time

Given that it takes an experienced worker to fold 200 dumplings per hour, let’s assume that four hours in a day is spent hand-pleating dumplings.

The food costs for these hourly churned 200 pieces come to a total of $24.84. If we were to take the stance that there is no food waste—an ideal but extremely unlikely scenario—the cost breakdown is as follows for chicken and cabbage dumplings:

  • Pre-made dumpling wrappers: $9.33

  • Ground chicken: $9.82

  • Ginger, cabbage, and scallions: $3.16

  • Seasoning: $2.53

If pre-made dumpling wrappers aren’t used, then we’d have to factor in additional time for dough prep and rest—which gets to my later question of the value of labour.

For this simplistic calculation, when we take the equation of (200 pieces) / ($24.84 food cost), we end up with a food cost of 12¢ apiece for chicken and cabbage dumplings.

These costs presume that certain ingredients, such as seasonings, are bought in bulk and through purveyors, and that the ingredients are sourced from purveyors and vendors, which offer more economical pricing due to scale.

At a base cost of 12¢ apiece, I can see how many are quick to surmise that dumplings are a “cheap” food item. However, not only are we leaving out the fixed costs of operating a business, but also the value of skilled labour.

Value of expertise and time

Sometimes I hear from second- and third-generation folks that dumplings should not be priced “so high” because their parents and grandparents can make them for less than the posted price.

Sure, you can make any food at home by paying only for raw goods, but are you expensing your time? Do you value the time you spent looking up the recipe, fumbling at attempt after attempt, or the inconsistent batch you ended up making?

And when you refer to your experienced family members, do you value the time they spent learning how to make each fold consistent? Do you value the time they spent honing this skill? Do you value the expertise that makes their finished products look so much better than yours?

Personally, in the hour that a skilled worker can fold two hundred dumplings, I end up with about three dozen misshapen inconsistent morsels.

This argument that I hear of how family can fold dumplings at home for so much less strikes a nerve with me because it so aptly reminds me of how devalued housework and home labour is. Just because you can do something at home doesn’t meant that expenses should go out the window. Value your time; value your parents’ time; and value your grandparents’ time. Not to mention, add value to the practice that it has taken to perfect this skill.

To evaluate how much each dumpling costs when labour is factored in at a business, let’s assume the minimum wage for what the lowest cost per unit is, then the $15/hour brings up the average cost per unit to 20¢.

= [(Cost of Goods for 200 pieces) + (Hourly Labour for 200 Dumplings)] / (Total Number of Pieces)

= [($24.84) + ($15.00)] / (200 pieces)

= ($39.97) / (200 pieces)

= 20¢

Even if you were to contend that some dumplings are folded at shops that are family-owned, and therefore there’s no labour expenditure, I’d ask you to reconsider. Why would you insist on devaluing expertise and skill just because someone is willing to suppress their salary from the equation to make prices work economically in your favour?

Then there are the other things to consider

So far, I’ve covered only the raw cost of goods and the hourly labour needed to wrap the dumplings. I’ve left out the math of operating a business: the fixed costs of rent, insurance, unemployment, licensing, garbage pickup, electricity, and more. And to be fair, I’m not as great at calculating this one out since I’d have to spread the costs across varied projects.

But what I can include in our consideration is the labour of preparing the ingredients and work space, and breaking down and cleaning the station after use. Even if the employees are prepping and cleaning for other work projects, we can still attribute a number to the cost.

For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume that it takes two hours to prep the filling and clean the station thereafter, and that we are folding 800 dumpling pieces for the day.

= [(Cost of Goods) + (Folding Labour) + (Prep and cleanup labour)] / (Total Pieces)

= [($99.38) + ($15 * 4 hours) + ($15 * 2 hours)] / (800 pieces)

= ($189.50) / (800 pieces)

= 24¢

Without even considering fixed costs, we are almost at a quarter per dumpling in food and labour costs. The way that you find that most of Chinatown makes money is by selling through volume, as opposed to margin—and this illustration is indicative of how this is the case.

And if we want to get into the discussion of machine-made dumplings, I can tell you that in order to be able to operate the machine, you still need to know the fundamentals. How can you know what the output is supposed to be like if you don’t know any of the basics? Never mind that, let’s also consider that there is still a lot of manual labour involved in terms of preparing the filling and dough, pacing production, and ensuring quality assurance. The machine is a tool—it is not a replacement. As such, it merely increases the output, and does not depreciate the knowledge needed.

In short: yes, you should be paying more

We should be paying more for what we consume. Stop subscribing to the misinformed notion that certain cuisines—particularly Chinese food—should be cheap.

So, as a first step, how about you consider the price to cost ratio when you are grabbing a to-go order of dumplings, and add a few dollars to the tip bucket to help even out what you should be paying in 2021?

And as a second step, can we stop talking about how certain foods are “cheap”? Such a word has become synonymous with casting a barrier that never never allows certain foods to move at the same pace as economic inflation or to evolve in the cultural landscape. Let’s start with changing how we talk about food; if anything, food can be affordable.

Further reading