Burnt: The Saga of $4 Toast in San Francisco

josey baker at the mill
Josey Baker of Josey Baker Bread with a slice of toast at The Mill in San Francisco.

However you slice it, this saga starts with trash talk about $4 toast.

Since last summer, the humble staple has emerged as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with San Francisco right now. That’s when toast got lumped in with the simmering resentment over the growing digerati demographic and the tech boom’s impact on this city’s affordability, diversity and culture.

It all began when an online outfit that covers the industry, VentureBeat, ran with this provocative headline, which went viral: “$4 toast: Why the tech industry is ruining San Francisco.” The price of this particular piece of toast prompted an affordable housing petition in the city that was covered by the San Francisco Chronicle and the blog post was referenced in the New York Times as an example of increasing sticker shock by the Bay.

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. No matter that the toast in question costs $3.50 or $3.75 for a generous hunk, on par with other cafés in the city, or the cost of a chunk of coffee cake from Starbucks, for that matter. Or that the coffee shop that serves it, The Mill, is a new neighborhood joint in NoPa, more likely to be filled with local hipsters who arrive by foot, bike or car versus private-bus-taking Silicon Valley stiffs going out of their way for whole-grain goodness.

Also, the man behind the bread is not some gazillionaire grainiac with tech ties making tons of dough from baking, well, tons of dough. And yet the price point of this baker’s sourdough toast has come in for criticism in a city where the latest wave of “immigrants” earn six-figure salaries, not necessarily beginning with a one, as boomtown observers like Rebecca Solnit have noted. Meanwhile, longtime residents, some seething with anger, are trying to hold on tight to maintain their standard of living as costs soar.

What’s with that? Somehow, an important discussion about the real cost of food got mixed up in a raging debate about whether San Francisco is morphing into a monochromatic, one-dimensional town catering solely to the 1%. This is a city, after all, where the median home sale price hit $1 million last year and asking rents in 2013 for a two-bedroom apartment broke the $3,000 mark. It costs $84,133 for a family of four to live modestly but comfortably in San Francisco and a single parent needs $80,703 to scrape by, according to calculations by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.

Given the housing costs here, it’s a wonder anyone eats anything other than rice and beans. But what if so-called $4 toast is an affordable luxury for some, an everyday breakfast for others who think nothing of dropping four bucks for a cup of Third Wave coffee?

This backlash over the cost of bread comes as the city experiences a seismic cultural shift: young families, artists and low-wage and minority workers priced out in droves. Across the pond, The Economist foresees pissed off people here could fuel a “peasants’ revolt against the sovereigns of cyberspace” and already we’ve witnessed protests in late fall by anti-eviction activists marching through Mid-Market and surrounding a Mountain View–bound Google bus in the heart of the Mission.

But how did something as simple as toast—a source of comfort and nourishment for centuries around the globe, enjoyed by the proletariat and princes alike—become synonymous with tech excess? Time to follow the trail of crumbs.

sliced rye bread toast
Left: Dark mountain rye toast with cream cheese at The Mill.
Right: Slicing inch-thick slices of whole wheat-bread for toast.

Let Them Eat $4 Toast

Jolie O’Dell started it. “I went to The Mill for breakfast today and got a black cup of coff ee and a single slice of toast topped with butter and sour strawberry jam. For $6,” she wrote in her business blog post, which she dubbed “tongue-in- cheek, a bit.”

Perhaps O’Dell, whose story came accompanied by an image of her own decent-looking DIY bread, doesn’t get out much, but those are fairly standard prices for upscale café fare. She then goes on to berate “bourgie businesses that cater to the bored and overprivileged, peppering their descriptions with buzzwords like ‘organic’ and ‘fair trade’ and ‘artisanal.’” O’Dell seems to take issue with eaters who seek food made without pesticides in ways that pay attention to craft, don’t harm workers or the environment and offer farmers and food workers a living wage.

But let the baker defend himself. Josey Baker who, I kid you not, rents an apartment on Baker Street, was taken aback by the buzz.

“My first reaction: I was hurt,” says Baker, whose eponymously named bakery, his first brick-and-mortar business, is housed inside The Mill. The shared space, a collaboration with the team from Four Barrel Coffee, opened in February last year. “Still, I am grateful to be part of the conversation about the cost of food because it’s a complicated one and it needs to happen. I don’t have the answers to these problems, but I acknowledge them.”

The self-taught baker himself comes from modest means: He landed in San Francisco eight years ago and borrowed a thousand dollars to pay his first month’s rent in the Mission. “I didn’t want to buy a pot for the kitchen because I thought that was too expensive,” he says with a laugh, “when we could make a meal of $4 burritos.”

So he gets that $4 toast sounds absurd. But what The Mill is serving up is really an open-face sandwich, he says. “If you cut our slab of bread in half, put the fillings on the inside, and called it a PB&J sandwich for $3.75—essentially just presenting it in a different form—nobody would give it a second thought,” the Vermont native says. “It’s hearty; it’s meant to be your breakfast for $3.75. Is that expensive?” Given the cult following for his crust, which typically sells out, not everyone thinks so.

Just across the street from The Mill sits the iconic greasy spoon Eddie’s Café. It sells three pancakes for $4.25 and a side of toast (purchased from Costco, brand and provenance unknown) for $1.20. A cup of Joe, served up in giant, mismatched coffee mugs, costs $1.65. The Korean-owned, unabashedly down-home diner, which has anchored this Western Addition corner for more than three decades, is packed most days with a wait on the weekends. And Baker is cool with all that. “There should be and are options across the food spectrum for people.”

Of course, there’s a world of difference between the bread on offer at each spot. “Given what goes into our bread, I feel like it’s worth what we charge,” says Baker, who grinds some of his own flour on a stone mill and sources the rest from Central Milling, a Petaluma-based business. “People aren’t used to buying bread that’s priced appropriately because they’re used to buying factory-made bread using shitty ingredients, where the grains are grown by farms that are supported by hefty government subsidies. The public is lagging behind a bit in seeing bread as an agricultural product like produce, meat or dairy.”

It turns out milling your own flour is a tricky, time-consuming skill to perfect. But it’s worth the extra work, says Baker.

“Our motivation is simple: We’re trying to make the best tasting and most nutritious bread we know how to make and run a responsible small business,” says Baker, who has eight employees and makes 250–300 loaves a day, including country, whole wheat sesame poppy, and dark mountain rye. Baker’s bread retails for $6 a loaf and is also sold at Bi-Rite Market and Rainbow Grocery, in restaurants such as Nopa, Frances and State Bird Provisions, and via Good Eggs.

In comparison, a loaf of Tartine Bread costs $8.25–$8.75, Vital Vittles loaves retail for $4.59–4.99 and sliced supermarket bread costs in the $2 to $4 range. According to a recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle, a loaf of Safeway wheat bread costs $2.99 in San Francisco but only $1.99 in Washington, D.C. Safeway declined to comment on its prices for the story but the city’s high rents, high labor costs and high cost of living may well be factors in the pricing disparity.

For his part, Four Barrel’s Jeremy Tooker believes The Mill’s toast became a scapegoat and he feels unfairly targeted. “We buy the bread from Josey at retail price, we pay our employees significantly above minimum wage, and we offered our staff good health insurance long before it was mandatory to do so, because these are the right things to do,” says Tooker. “So the fact that we were singled out in this way irked me.” At press time Tooker, who prides himself on running an ethical, sustainable, and community-minded business, is toying with the idea of selling an actual “$4 toast” at The Mill and donating the profits to a local hunger-relief organization. “There’s a place for all types of food experiences in the city, we can coexist, and we wouldn’t want to lose that diversity–but we’re trying to do something very different at The Mill. Nobody has to buy our toast, or Eddie’s for that matter, they could make it for a fraction of the price at home. It comes down to personal preference: Some people don’t think anything of spending $100 a month on cable, I’d rather put that money towards food.”

Next up for Baker: working with California farmers to grow local grains for his baking business. Critics be damned, Baker, who’s been perfecting his product for the past three years through trial and error and without compromise or cutting corners, is on a mission to lift the everyday loaf from the humdrum to the humdinger.

liza shaw at merigan sub shop
Left: Liza Shaw of Merigan Sub Shop hand shaving Italian ice. Right: Merigan’s Italian Combo Sandwich.

Sub Sandwich Prices Labeled Excessive Too

The Mill’s toast is not the only backlash against the price of bread in town. When Baltimore-bred Liza Shaw launched her East-Coast-style sub sandwich shop near the Giants ballpark last November she took a hit in the local food media for the cost of her half sandwiches, including an Italian Combo chock full of meat and cheese that clocked in at nine bucks. “Merigan is Quite Possibly the Most Overpriced Sandwich in the City,” read an SFoodie review by Peter Kane mere days after the South of Market joint opened. Shaw was heartbroken.

“As a restaurateur, I don’t want anybody to feel like they got ripped off. But that’s an opinion, a feeling, it’s not coming from fact,” says the California Culinary Academy graduate known for her stints at high-end restaurants like A16. “I need to pay my employees, my rent and my investors in a very expensive city. This is a business and we’re all just trying to make some money but the margins are very small.”

Shaw’s homage to a hoagie shop has plenty of fine-dining features: local animal sourcing, whole pig butchery and housemade meatballs, terrines and “hots” (a pickled pepper chutney). Even before Shaw got wind of the review, she had resized and repriced her sandwiches based on three days of service, instinct and industry and customer feedback.

“Doing a half and a whole sub didn’t work for us—it takes just as much time and labor to make a whole as it did a half,” she explains, of the sandwiches made on sesame-studded, squishy Pinkie’s Bakery bread. “Now we make an eight-inch sub, which is substantial to share and it’s a good size sub if you’re hungry and want to eat it all yourself.” This shift essentially made the review moot on the moola front.

Still, it stung. “This controversy happens every few years in this city when somebody takes something that is originally a pedestrian food and turns it into something that is destination worthy,” Shaw says. “When we opened A16 back in 2004, people were griping about paying $15 for a pizza. We were trying to take something that is comfortable and familiar and elevate it with a level of technique and ingredients in an atmosphere that was above and beyond your typical pizza joint.”

She brings the same sensibility to Merigan. Shaw’s banking on her subs hitting it big with omnivorous ballpark goers, who can fork out as much as $16 for a Widowmaker, so named because it’s crammed with roast beef, mortadella, salami, prosciutto cotto, turkey, provolone and add ons. But like Baker, she doesn’t begrudge consumers who seek out cheaper eats.

“You can still find a ham and cheese sandwich on two slices of white bread for $4 in the city, you might even get a bag of chips with it,” she says. “But I guarantee you that ham, cheese and bread was made with inferior-quality ingredients using low-cost labor. That said, I understand that some people are just trying to put food in their bellies.”

Shaw may well have the last laugh: In December her sub shop was featured in the Chronicle’s “Bargain Bite” column as a place to go for “hefty sandwiches from quality fixings.” There’s a nod to their cost and the recognition that “there are sandwiches, and there are meals between bread, Merigan is most definitely the latter.”

Where does that leave consumers, whether or not they give a toss about the pedigree of their toast? Ultimately, eaters are free to vote with their taste buds, conscience, personal preferences, feet and pocketbook. Oh, and this subject is unlikely to get stale soon: Blue Bottle Coffee now sells a wedge of Acme bread for five bucks a pop at its Mint location. And at the new restaurant The Cavalier diners part with $6 for a piece of Pullman’s loaf with preserves, prompting one wag to joke they might refer to The Mill as “that ghetto place with the cheap toast.”


The cost of running a food business in San Francisco

30% for goods

35% for labor

10-12% for controllable costs such as supplies, linens, janitorial, repairs and maintenance

10% for general and administrative costs such as credit card processing fees, payroll tax, building insurance, equipment rentals, accounting, marketing and legal

6% rent

5-10% profit (which would be very healthy)

Source: Laurie Aaronson, AOC SF, a CPA with 30 years experience advising restaurant and food businesses in San Francisco.