We are happy when we are eating, as numerous studies on time use and well-being have shown — but we are not happy cooking. This conclusion comes from revealed preference: what you choose to do or not do tells what you like and don’t like.
Twenty- and 30-somethings have suggested that apartments and condos could be made less costly by not installing kitchens. They may occasionally eat at home but it is always take out. They never cook at home and may not even make coffee. Someone is keeping all those coffee shops in business.
Breakfast was the last meal to be regularly prepared and eaten at home. Even that has moved from a cooked meal involving eggs or porridge to toast or dry cereal, the latter designed as an early convenience food so no one would have to cook in the morning. Alas, research by the makers of ready-to-eat cereal have found that their customers see pouring cold cereal into a bowl and adding some milk as too much of a bother compared with picking up a muffin or a breakfast sandwich on the way to work.
Not having to cook at home can be seen as a measure of an improved standard of living. Wealthy people always have had servants to prepare their food. Most of us can’t afford to hire cooks, but just about all of us can afford to outsource at least some of food preparation by eating out, taking out or buying ready-to-eat food at the supermarket or elsewhere.
Nor can this be seen as an extravagant luxury when all the adults in a household are employed. Shopping, cooking, cleanup and food wastage are all eliminated if you can get just what you want to eat when you want to eat it. Even the health question is being solved as more food preparers tweak their offerings to create healthier options.
Another advantage of not cooking at home is that it moves a major activity out of the category of unpaid household labour into the monetized economy. Jobs, business opportunities and taxes are generated in food services.
But this is where the dismal science of economics casts its grim shadow. People do not want to cook at home and, if you ask employers, people do not want to cook at work either.
Potentially viable food service businesses are increasingly choosing not to open because they cannot get staff. Finding servers is difficult but usually possible because the skills required can be learned on the job if workers have the right attitude. Tips help compensate for the relatively low wages. Also, servers become less essential as takeout becomes a larger share of the business.
Cooks are the real bottleneck. A chef is a highly-skilled job requiring training and experience. She or he can make or break a business. Line cooks are the backbone of food service. The job is not easy. They literally have to be able to stand the heat in a kitchen and do many complex tasks under tight time pressure to a high level of exactitude. Customers (and bosses) get upset if a steak is overcooked or there is mayo instead of mustard in the sandwich. Having a few dozen other orders to look after at the same time is no excuse.
In Vancouver in 2013, $24 an hour was considered a high wage for chefs, as was $20 for cooks. The minimum wage was offered at the low end. There is no evidence of significant increases since then, although an increase in the minimum wage would help those at the bottom.
Why not just raise wages?
Food service is competitive and there is no large pool of profits from which to pay more. If a business raises its prices to cover higher wages, it will lose customers to those firms that do not. If all or most food service outlets raise wages and prices, the industry will lose business as the higher prices drive customers to move down the food chain to less fancy outlets and/or even figure out how to prepare food at home.
For workers and potential workers in food services and other low paid sectors, the best option for increased income is to improve one’s skills, get more experience and move to the better-paid jobs.
Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.