San Francisco is at the center of many debates. Debates on housing, on politics, on toast. Yes, you read that right: toast is now a hot-button issue in the fine city of San Francisco. At least two local coffee shops serve toast that nears $4 a slice. In local media, that $4 toast has become a symbol for the city’s changing dynamics and gentrification. Some call the toast a status symbol of the tech-elite, proof that this much-maligned group is wrecking havoc on the city’s cost of living. Others say the toast is a sign that the artisanal food trend has gone too far. And some people just can’t believe others are willing to shell out $4 for toast.
Now, I’m not here to talk politics. I’m here to talk about the intersection of two other topics that I’m much more qualified to discuss: consumer behavior, and baked goods. Leaving all the social class and political commentary behind, I want to dig into this disbelief that $4 toast could be “worth it.” Those who love the toast are almost scared to admit it, and those who would “never” buy it are quick to judge others for doing so. In a world where people drop big bucks on cupcakes, coffee, frozen yogurt, why all the hate on toast?
Well… because it’s toast. Toast, in itself, is not very inspiring. You think of a toaster, you think of a slice of store-bought bread, you think of racing out your house on the way to work. Toast sounds so plain Jane and so cheap that the idea of spending a lot of money on it takes people by surprise. Many of us were also surprised when cupcakes became such a craze, because they’d never before been positioned as “gourmet” desserts. But cupcakes rose to a popularity that’s yet to be surpassed by any other mainstream baked good. Not everyone can afford to drop $5 on a cupcake, and not everyone wants to, but the mini cakes have become a staple in contemporary U.S. food culture.
Meanwhile, toast just sounds boring, and too easy to replicate. You can prep toast in a matter of minutes at your house. Why pay someone else $4 to do that for you? But you see, this $4 toast isn’t simply toasted, store-bought bread. It’s a thick slice of hand-baked bread, toasted and then slathered in toppings like fresh cream cheese or Nutella. You’re not really paying for the act of “toasting” it, you’re paying for the time and care that went into picking the ingredients, baking the bread, and choosing high-quality toppings.
Now, let’s think about what you spend on other baked goods. A very mediocre muffin at my corner coffee store costs $3. A bagel with cream cheese might set you back $3 too, even if it tastes like cardboard. And the baked goods at Starbucks can cost about $4 a piece. So why not spend $4 on delicious toast? How is that really any different from spending that money on a bagel? And isn’t $4 a pretty decent price for breakfast out? Well, my friends, it comes down to framing: toast hasn’t been able to shake off its reputation as “boring.” We think some level of expertise goes into muffins, we deem it hard to bake bagels, we love the experience of Starbucks. And then we forget that we’re spending the same amount, just on a different form of baked good.
For the record, I fell prey to the $4 toast quandary myself. A friend was in town, and we decided to check it out. Admittedly, we were somewhat intrigued by the price: how could it really be that good, we asked ourselves? And you know what? It was really, really good. It was a thick, delicious slice of bread topped with a generous coating of fresh butter and cinnamon sugar. Would I go back and buy it everyday? No. But as a shared snack, or as a solo breakfast, I would definitely buy it again.
And if you work for the National Toast Association, give me a call – I’d like to help you position your baked good.
If you’re interested in reading more on the SF toast debates, check out these links:
In-depth profile on one of the women who offers $4 toast (a very touching story)