How to Split the Dinner Bill: Should Millionaires Pay More?

Recently I was listening to an episode of the Slate Money podcast where the hosts had an argument that really caught my attention. It was about who pays for dinner in a mixed income group, and it went something like this (very paraphrased):

Felix Salmon: You expect your friend to pay for dinner because she’s rich?

Emily Peck: Yeah, she has like 500 million dollars! Of course she pays. I offer to pay if she’s OK with going some place more affordable.

As I listened, at first I was a little surprised at Emily’s confidence in flouting what is an unspoken taboo at most dinner tables. Yet Slate Money’s extreme example of millionaires with thousandaires was actually one I have found myself in, and so it seemed worth taking a second look at my thinking and the beliefs underlying it.

In New York City, proximity creates cross-class interactions in every-day life. With Section 8 government housing opposite million-dollar mansions, and millionaires taking the subway with working Joes, we are organically a part of each other’s day-to-day. I’ve met every kind and class of person in the City, and have had the pleasure of meeting a few people in the “Two Commas Club” that have become good friends. And when I go to dinner with them, I want to pay for myself. Why is that?

Splitting the bill equally vs. equitably

On an interpersonal level, I don’t want wealthy friends to feel imposed upon or used. But Emily has forced me to ask, is a friendship really about equality, i.e. everyone paying the same, or equity, where each person contributes what they uniquely have to offer? If the latter, then in the dinner scenario that is purely about dollars and cents, shouldn’t the wealthier person pay more in proportion to their income? I’m surprised to find myself uneasy with the idea that my rich friends should pay more of the dinner bill when I have no problem with the idea of them paying more in taxes.

Source: Interaction Institute for Social Change

Dinner bill math as a microcosm of economic policy

Our current unease with wealthy friends picking up more of the dinner tab translates directly into the Republican line of thinking: that each person should look after themselves, and if they can’t afford to eat out, they should go without. Simply put, everyone should pay for their own dinner. This argument ignores context: it’s easier to pick yourself up by your own bootstraps if everyone has similar incomes and similar access to opportunities. Thus, it’s easier in single-class circles for each person to pay their own dinner bill. But that’s not the scenario many people find themselves in in New York City.

Getting comfortable with the idea of the wealthy paying more for dinner requires a more liberal paradigm. From a liberal perspective, there are different levels of economic responsibility for public goods, depending on your wealth. And sharing a meal with friends is, arguably, a public good, a microcosm of pro-social economic policy. At the dinner table level, the wealthy paying more for meals would lead to more diverse life experiences through cross-class friendships. These benefits, one could argue, ultimately pay for themselves in the form of a more functional society.

The alternative for the wealthy is relative social isolation — which under our current paradigm is the path most often chosen. The rich feel more socially isolated today than ever before as income inequality has increased. On the flip side, the positive externalizes of the wealthy paying more for meals have actually already been measured: namely, through free school lunch policies. Free breakfast and lunch leads to stronger student performance and, thus, stronger long-term productivity for the economy.

Systemically better results

One might argue that there is a risk of creating reliance on the wealthy that undermines relationships and self-reliance. It’s why parents stop paying for their adult children, even while parent incomes are typically greater. Yet the liberal paradigm isn’t trying to put parental responsibilities on the wealthy. It’s simply trying to systemically produce the best result and best opportunities for the most people.

So this holiday season, as you catch up with friends over cozy meals, think about what norms you want to have. And share with me what you think: should rich people pay more for dinner the way we ask them to pay more for taxes? Tweet at me: @mbainthecity

Meal kit cook off: a side-by-side comparison

As a youngish professional spending most of my time in Manhattan, I find myself in food deserts from time to time, or move to move as it were. Each new move can spur a renewed exploration of meal kits, which have proliferated as a consumer offering in the last 5-10 years. A lot of listicles like Reviewed.com rate the mail-and-cook kit options, without factoring in the changing face of grocery. Thinking outside the FedEx box means recognizing that Whole Foods is in on the game now, and it’s not just Weight Watchers selling ready healthy meals anymore. Below is a side-by-side comparison sampling one of each of the three mealkit styles:

  • Blue Apron representing mail-and-cook

  • Amazon Meal Kits debuting pick-up-and-cook

  • Freshly repping mail, heat and eat

Amazon Meal Kits: I’m impressed

Amazon always does everything a little differently. In this instance, they’ve priced each meal kit differently, ranging from $15.99 to $19.99. This makes sense when the ingredients range from chicken to shrimp, and departs from the typical meal kit practice of flat pricing.

Also distinctive is the short, simple instructions and minimal number of ingredients. This meant that the 30 minute cooking time was a true 30 minutes! I tried the pork dish, and appreciated the fresh crunch and flavors, likely aided by the fact that I cooked it the same day that I bought it.

Freshly: full of flavor

Freshly caught my eye with a promotion, and now they have me sold. Six single meals for $60 gets you imaginative dishes like “Aloha Chicken” and wild-caught mahi. I had my doubts about microwave dishes, but the spices and the fresh ingredients mean there is only a little added softness from the microwave steaming. It’s all a huge upgrade from the panini and chicken salad sandwiches of downtown delis.

Blue Apron: light on flavor, long on time

I gave up on Blue Apron last year. The long recipe descriptions and amount of chopping for a knife-skills novice meant that the “30 minute” prep times were usually more like 60 minutes – that’s 100% overage! Also, they seemed to think salt, pepper, and olive oil were all you need to make a dish pop. It got a bit boring after a short while. And even with all the cooking time, I didn’t become a significantly better cook. Hence my back-tracking to the simpler options above.

The final evaluation: price, time and flavor

So who wins the a battle of price, time, and flavor? I’ve conveniently plotted price vs. time performance of these three options below, and plotted flavor against prep time in a 2×2 below.

 Price vs. prep time for 3 types of meal kits
Price vs. prep time for 3 types of meal kits

When evaluating flavor against prep time, we see Amazon and Freshly are in the lead.

 Plotting each meal kit on the amount of flavor and the amount of prep time each offers.
Plotting each meal kit on the amount of flavor and the amount of prep time each offers.

Using the Net Promoter Score scale for each of the three, rating how likely I am to recommend each kit on a scale of 0 to 10, here’s where I personally land on ratings for Amazon, Freshly, and Blue Apron.

Bon appetit!

Moving in and taking out – the demise of Seamless

It’s July, I’ve tossed my graduation cap up in the air, and into a crate. I’ll miss the NYU housing, just a stone’s throw away from Washington Square Park. Mamoun’s will no longer be my go-to dinner spot, and I finished my last Smith’s brunch for a while yesterday morning. 

The two movers from Queens that I found on Craig’s List arrived with their van, and we begin the elevator dance, squeezing what we can into the freight in our 3 hour reserved slot. I’d managed to find a new three bedroom in a hot new neighborhood. Well, just outside of a hot new neighborhood – Bushwick; it’s more affordable. It’s a walk-up, but I’m only on the second floor, and there’s three of us — we can handle.

Six hours later, with 30 minutes of coach maneuvering, we’ve arrived as a sweaty mess of cardboard boxes in the living room. I don’t know were my new work wardrobe ends and my pots and pans begin. I think to myself, If I can make it here, I can also get it delivered. Already salivating, I pull out my phone and open up Seamless, visions of chicken pad thai dancing through my mind. I scroll. And scroll. And scroll. Polish food. All Polish food. No thai food even touches the map of possibilities. Even if I pretend to be a few blocks closer to Manhattan, I seem to be just one block further east than any Thai restaurant is willing to go. And it fully dawns on me, I’ve made a horrible mistake — I have moved into a delivery desert.

I lived in a land with sushi as far as the eye can see only 6 hours ago. In the depths of my despair, I realize I need to pay the movers. As they open Venmo to make the request, I notice a *whole screen* of food apps. “Hey, which of those apps do delivery around here?” I ask, trying not to sound as desperate as I am. “All of them,” my mover says. I gape in disbelief. “Want a referral? I can send you all of them – DoorDash, Postmates, maybe Caviar because – treat yo-self”. Hell. Yes. “That would be awesome, I owe you a tip as well, add it to the Venmo.” 

My world had just contracted and expanded in the space of minutes, the Big Bang of delivery. Just because I don’t live in the Village, doesn’t mean I can’t eat like I do. The confines of my local neighborhood erased, the city is once again my bread basket.

Download #1 complete. Postmates. I open, and scroll, and scroll. It was there. It was all there. Restaurants that had mysteriously disappeared from Seamless months ago, now available to me, miles away. I now saw the shifting tides for what they were: the Great Unbundling. The restaurants no longer had to hire delivery people, or share a cut with Seamless. They could just outsource it.

Further down the list: Shake Shack. This explained the mysterious lines of this non-delivering burger power house. These delivery services will order for you, and wait in line! And after a day like mine, I am more than willing to pay the service and delivery costs. I upgrade from my #2 to my #1 Thai place, now that it’s back on the map, and place a double order of chicken pad thai. And while I’m at it, I delete the Seamless app. Goodbye peirogis, hello world.

Restaurants now help serve up ideas

There’s a visible trend of communal seating in the dining world, especially at fast casual restaurants like Dig Inn. At first I wondered if the Sharing Economy had gone too far – taking out seating real estate just like WeWork has small businesses share conference rooms and kitchens. Are these businesses just squeezing out more dollars per square foot or actually adding social value? I suspect that Dig Inn is just using timely positioning for its foot traffic goals. But others like Coup, former bar and now a pop-up bar, have leveraged the communal seating for a actionable social good.

At Coup, 100% of profits go to non-profits, including those de-funded under the Trump administration. Patrons each received a token per drink with which to vote on featured charities by placing chips in jars placed along the edge of the room. Social interaction is encouraged by placing the jars on ledges behind tables. Did ideas end up being exchanged between strangers? Possibly on occasion. Whether it worked or not, I endorse the concept. And whether it happens or not at Dig Inn, I’m still eating their delicious meat balls and roasted sweet potatoes.

Can Walmart beat Instacart?

It’s been fascinating to see Walmart level up from bargain bin to bleeding edge, as they entered the e-commerce race against Amazon. Their acquisition of Jet.com and expansion into e-grocery delivery were only the start. Their latest announcement left me beaming with hope for the future of online grocery shopping, as they step up as that someone to save me from my Instacart woes. This is Star Trek level next horizon tech, deployed for our shopping delight. Drum roll please….select your own produce via 3D imaging!

Okay okay, this may not sound as thrilling to you who have no trouble getting to a supermarket any given day. But if you’ve lived in an urban supermarket desert before, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve tried FreshDirect and gotten a bruised $2 tomato. You’ve tried the Instacart route, where they had 90%+ accuracy on your first order, but your second order was half missing or substituted with “equivalent foods”. SPAM IS NOT HAM! GRADE A EXTRA LARGE EGGS ARE NOT THE SAME AS ORGANIC FREE RANGE VEGETARIAN GRASS FINISHED EGGS! AND DRIED CRANBERRIES…well, actually, those are all the same.

I think we all want food to taste good and not be wilted and on its way out when it arrives to our kitchen. When the patent clears and the tech is rolled out, I will be there to test it out, in the hopes that it is the harbinger of a brave new grocery world.

Big data for local pizza

I first read about Slice last summer and their impressive registry of 7,000+ pizzerias, banding together to take on mass-produced monsters like Pizza Hut, one pepperoni pie order at a time. I guess as a New Yorker, with a pizzaria every block or two, I never thought it too inconvenient to hop on the phone and dial in an order. But I have been troubled at the sights in smaller cities where people default to *shiver* Dominos… and like it! I want to preach to my peers “No, it’s not real pizza!” And Slice CEO Sela’s heart went out to the local shops that just don’t know how to throw up a good website. He’s incentivizing loyalty and sharing customer data with the mamas and papas outside of Papa John’s. Pizza for the people. I dig it.

 Love for the local pizzaria
Love for the local pizzaria

It’s hot cocoa time!

Nature has flipped the switch from 70F to 40F – which means it is high time for hot drinks! I do regret that mulled wine isn’t an American winter staple, although Hot Toddies are a decent substitute. But if it’s too early in the week or day for that, there’s nothing more pleasing that a hot cup of cocoa. And if you’re an east coaster who has discovered Ghiradelli Hot Cocoa, there really is no substitute. But the grand question of several years ago is, what happened to their distribution? Why did Stop & Shop stop carrying it? Did it not sell as well as Nesquik? Were the comparative margins of chocolate bars so much better that grocers changed their SKU strategy? I do grant that a package of hot cocoa takes up a lot more shelf space. Thankfully as with all even moderately niche products, e-commerce has filled the gap. And the everything store (a.k.a. Amazon) sells it in bulk. Thanks, Amazon, for filling my cup!

 

You’ve been Cronutted

Being (admittedly) one step behind the foodie trend, I was mightily pleased when I came across an Upper West Side food fair with a bold banner announcing “CRONUTS”, the flakey croissant-like donuts that somehow seem to come up in every weekend conversation with my hard-core foodie friends.

I picked out a juicy Nutella and creamy coconut pair and glanced at the name “Jolie’s” in small print in the corner of the banner, not thinking much of it…only to learn upon presenting my +1 with his trophy donut that I’d been duped by a copy cat! Well, I was still really excited to eat the donut, so I actually didn’t feel that bad. But I was certain that such a catchy name had to be trade marked, lest other chefs take advantage of the hard won innovation. While Wikipedia says “yes”, the NYC bakery market says, “You think a patent and trade-mark can stop us?” While no big players have been so brazen as to steal the exact name, nothing else is sacred. Yes, D&D is in on the action. 

So how does that make all the entrepreneurs feel about where their blood, sweat and tears are going? Eh, it’s par for the course really. Did you hear about the lady that invented these now ubiquitous spinners? That’s right, no, because Chinese-built knock-offs flooded the market once her patent expired. In the land where IP is thought to be sacred, you may not always be much better off. But on the upside, for us consumers, more donuts of 80% the quality! 

Meeting you at your level: NYC Sandwich Board Marketing

My eyes tilted downward at my phone as I traverse the streets of Manhattan, sandwich boards turn out to be perfect marketing height! Like a good PowerPoint presentation, the best boards are not text heavy, and speak without words.

Any given hole in the wall can punch above its weight with an emotive graphic promising a delicious sensory experience.

Let’s be real, even the trendy little spots might barely be making rent, so no need to splash out on a fancy awning that only gets weather-worn. Keep it fresh, keep it innovative, and keep it at iPhone level 🙂