A month ago, I was eating a terrific meal at a taverna right on a lovely beach on the Greek island of Patmos when a perverse thought occurred to me.
“I bet this lunch is cheaper than we’d pay at a Panera, in some strip mall somewhere in the U.S.,” I said to my wife, who was finishing up a carafe of the house red that cost the equivalent of $4.
I made the comment somewhat in jest, but yesterday after having lunch at a Panera in Dekalb, Illinois, I realized that my statement had actually been correct. Here’s a little comparison of two lunches, experienced in very different corners of the world.
In Patmos, we dined right on Lambi beach, with a stunning view of the Aegean. We split a half liter of house red wine, had a large bottle of water, two orders of chicken souvlaki, which came with a small salad and fries, and our kids split one order of plain spaghetti. The bill came to the equivalent of $28.50 and we were welcomed to linger and use the taverna’s free Wi-Fi for as long as we liked. Shots of ouzo were offered on the house.Panera
Our Dekalb Panera location offered a panoramic view of strip malls as far as the eye could see, with a Panda Express, a Barnes & Noble, a Starbucks and a Ross all within spitting distance. We ordered one Cuban Panini ($7.89), one chicken cobb avocado salad ($8.69), two kids’ mac and cheese meals, which included small bowls of mac and cheese and some yogurt ($4.99 each) and four glasses of ice water (free).
With tax, the bill came to $29.22 and would have been more like $35 if we’d ordered drinks or desserts. We didn’t have our laptops with us, as we did in Patmos, but Panera has a 30-minute limit on Wi-Fi usage during the lunch rush. The place was packed and there wasn’t a single empty table despite the fact that there were no free shots of ouzo or anything else for that matter.
In fairness to Panera, I like the place and our meal was pretty good, especially for fast food. But the meal in Patmos was far better, both in terms of the quality of the food, the ambience and the service. With tip, the meal in Patmos was actually a bit more expensive but not by much, because in Greece people usually just round up and tips don’t usually exceed 10%.
This is obviously an apples to oranges comparison, but the point is that “upscale” fast food places like Cosi, Noodles & Company, Panera, Corner Bakery and others seem to be getting pretty damn pricey. Getting lunch at any of these places for less than $10 isn’t easy, unless you eat like a bird. According to the Christian Science Monitor, even Taco Bell, perish the thought, is going upscale! What is the world coming to?
But bargains still exist at independent fast food outlets. Last night, my faith in the American non-burger/KFC/Taco Bell/Arby’s fast-food genre was restored at a place called Just Kabobs, in St. Charles, a nice town about an hour west of Chicago. My wife and I both had a chicken kabob platter that included two big skewers of delicious chicken, rice, pita, salad and Greek potatoes, which cost just $5.99 each, and we split a hummus and pita appetizer for only $2.25.
The quality and quantity of food was incredible, and the price was unbeatable. The only thing missing was the beach.