$4 toast: Why the tech industry is ruining San Francisco

Above: The writer's bread, baked at home.

Image Credit: Jolie O'Dell

I have a great business idea: luxury sanitation. White-glove garbage collectors and high-end toilet systems.

San Francisco has overpriced every other basic commodity of human existence. Why not take that trend to its illogical conclusion?

I went to The Mill for breakfast today and got a black cup of coffee and a single slice of toast topped with butter and sour strawberry jam. For $6.

It was an experiment in upper-middle class lifestyle consumerism. In San Francisco, flaunting your wealth has been elevated to new lows, if you will. The labels aren’t the usual lineup of foreign design houses; rather, we pay $300 for simple denim jeans or $200 for plain black yoga pants. We don’t go to the opera; we overspend on the simplest facets of life.

Coffee. Water. Bread. Housing. The kinds of things our pioneer forebears made themselves and considered basic necessities or small comforts.

And the tech community is largely to blame, in this writer’s opinion.

Here’s the cycle:

  1. Someone creates a business for consumers with too much money and pretensions of superior taste. It might be a physical good, like toast; it might be a service, like black-car, chauffeured rides.
  2. Tech folks, being one of the largest demographics in the city with ample disposable income, patronize, promote, and even invest in said business. (See: Blue Bottle coffee.)
  3. Aforementioned business prospers and grows its profile.
  4. People both within and outside the tech community are inspired to create more bourgie euro lotto online businesses that cater to the bored and overprivileged, peppering their descriptions with buzzwords like “organic” and “fair trade” and “artisanal,” the most meaningless of them all. Rarely are these goods and services truly accessible and affordable.
  5. San Francisco becomes saturated with overpriced crap that is comparable in quality to less overpriced crap.
  6. Middle class and working class families and individuals in the community find themselves priced out of goods and services. Small businesses in those sectors languish.

Good toast and a plain cup of coffee shouldn’t cost $6. But I can’t imagine the tech community putting the brakes on this trend any time soon. We’re obsessed with false ideas of quality. We fetishize the precious processes and benchmarks and prices that, in reality, have no bearing on how good something is.

With quality of goods and services, there is a point where the average (and paychecks aside, most of us are average) consumer can no longer distinguish between a superior and a beyond superior good or service.

Take audio equipment. Most of us can’t really make an accurate distinction in quality between a $2,000 system and a $5,000 system, yet the price sends the message that the latter is somehow of higher quality. Those without common sense and with padded wallets buy the latter.

The same applies to wine, bread, coffee, etc. So why do we pay more when we can’t tell the difference?

In a word, we want to look smarter. Ours is an intellectual economy and one that prizes polyglotism. We want to show each other that we are amateur audio engineers and brewers and bakers, that we’re not only wealthy but also knowledgable to an unlikely extreme.

We want to look smarter, but in this case, the emperor has no clothes. Bake your own bread. Buy regular coffee. Save your money. Aspire to be wise rather than just knowledgable. And in the process, help to save San Francisco from yourselves.

After my $6 breakfast, I am still hungry. This, San Francisco techsters, is all your fault.*

*Spoken with tongue in cheek. A bit.

chad opens
chad opens

Good job...I'm glad that you are writing on the tech industry and its relationship with sf. It doesn't matter if u are using a overpriced piece of toast as an example. Im in the service industry and among the very few working class left in the mission. I am so sad to see good people having to leave a place that should have stayed there home. It pisses me off that most really think that these corporate tech companies give a shit about anything but money (ie uber,apple,sales force,twitter,yahoo,Facebook) the list could go on and on. These companies and people who work for them will be gone at some point in the future. That day I will smile. It won't matter that I might not have as much work or the streets might be a little dirtier at least it will be a real communitty not some lame excuse for a city. Its truly been my worst nightmare seeing thousands and thousands of 25 to 35 year old nerdy males (mostly) who are coming straight outta some university and are making 200k a year starting off. Honestly I can't think of a worse demographic to flood my city. I hope your big air conditioned busses drive off a cliff. You ignore your impact on sf and try to make believe that u are doing good work for the world. Wake up and put down your smart phones and credit cards and laptops and maybe try to relate to someone that is not in one of your offices or campuses or whatever the hell u call them. But when it's all said and done I will still be here and the mayor will be gone and the bribes and tech industry will have hopefully moved on if not then it will be the shittiest shinniest souless blip on the map..  Rest in peace San Francisco I visit your grave daily.

Kevin Kind Songs
Kevin Kind Songs

The premises and statements in this article can't be true.  There is no evidence that anyone makes any conscious decision to do anything, let alone what they eat, let alone any sort of social impacts.  These are pop tropes that are now platitudes.  Ho hum

"We want to look smarter.."  How would this ever be determined?

We act and make up silly reasons, maybe after the fact.

Gemma Seymour
Gemma Seymour

See this? This is bread. My bread. Fresh out of the oven.

Gemma Seymour
Gemma Seymour

First of all, I don't know what the author of this piece baked up there in the picture, but whatever the hell it is, it isn't bread. That looks like something I might hang on a tree outside for the local birds to pick at, not something I'd feed a human.

I bake bread. Real bread. I'm a food writer, too. I create original recipes, and post them online. Eventually, I'll have enough to publish in a cookbook format. My friends are constantly suggesting that I should open up a restaurant, or a bakery, or some food business, and I have to usually forgo explaining to them the economics of that idea, since most of them have fairly specialised lives, and really don't understand what it takes to not only start a food business, but to make a successful go of it.

Here in Seattle, we are blessed with some wonderful artisanal bakeries. None of them, not a single one could ever possibly survive on baking bread alone. Just yesterday, having forgotten to bake bread because I got roped into taking my ex-roommate's cat to the airport to begin his new life in London and having rushed to a doctor's appointment immediately afterwards, I stopped by the estimable Macrina Bakery to buy a loaf of bread on my way home. I selected a very nice sourdough white boule for $4. So, I think we can assume that the going rate for an artisanal loaf in Seattle in $4.

Let's say I decided to start baking bread for sale. Let's say my cost of goods sold for each loaf is $1. That's a 300% profit margin, almost as good as Apple, right? So, for every loaf of bread I sell, I make $3. Great. So, to pay myself the minimum Seattle wage of $9 (it's actually 9.32/hr), I'd have to sell 3 loaves a hour, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. And that doesn't even cover the cost of benefits, or vacation, etc, so I guess we'll have to increase that by, say 50%, just to be safe.

So, every single day, I need to bake and sell 32 loaves of bread, just to support one person at the level of a minimum wage. And of course, don't forget that if I stand any chance of actually selling 32 loaves of bread in a day, I've got to be at and at 'em at like 4am in order to have bread ready to sell at 6am, when people start heading to work, and I've got to stay open until at least 6pm, like the other bakeries in town, if I really want to be competitive. Oh wait, that 14 hours of work a day.

At $9/hr for just 40 hrs a week, I'm making $360 a week, so in order to afford an $1100/mo studio apartment up on Lower Queen Anne Hill near the supermarkets, I'm going to have to pay three weeks of my "salary" just to pay my rent every month. Good thing I have that leftover bread to eat.

Maybe by now, you can see where I'm going with this.

Obviously, a real bakery, as a business, has to be able to support more than one person, and has to be able to have some padding built-in, because as they say, "stuff" happens.

You want to complain about a $6 cup of coffee and slice of toast? Nobody's forcing you to buy it. You can eat your bird feeder up there, and drink Maxwell House, like the plebes. I buy a 3 lb can of pre-ground coffee at Costco for $10, and I bake my own bread. Here, in the home of Starbucks. I'm a food writer and a cook, not a hipster with pretensions, and definitely not a sheep of a consumer. I use the word "artisanal" and mean it, but I drink Two Buck Chuck, too.

In fact, when I find myself at good restaurants, I make a point of selecting the cheapest wine on the list. You know why? Because if the sommelier is any good, there won't be a bad wine on the list, and if there's a bad wine on the list, that tells me everything I need to know about the restaurant. As does the quality of the bread they choose to serve.

Patrick Domres
Patrick Domres

Your coffee and toast was expensive because The Mill:

-(through their parent Four Barrel Coffee) sources coffees of extremely high quality directly from farmers, and insists on paying them fairly for their coffee's quality and providing a decent standard of living

-produces their bread in-house at a single location - absorb the costs of whole ingredients, labor, and waste

-pays a staff who need to meet rent in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.

-is operating out of a space in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.

You're paying $6 for this coffee and toast not because it is 'overpriced crap,' but because the building it's made in is ridiculously expensive, and because people with years of experience (who take their jobs very seriously) are preparing it for you (and cleaning up after you) so you don't have to spend time and energy doing it at home. You're paying for place, quality, and convenience. 

High-quality bakeries have been a staple of San Francisco since before computers existed, and the specialty coffee industry of today blossomed in Oakland and San Francisco with the formation of Blue Bottle and Ritual, about a decade before the current tech boom.

As a Bay Area barista who works at a family-owned specialty cafe and bakery, I can guarantee you that $6 is a steal considering the actual cost of your toast and coffee, even outside of SF. If you want to explain the negative impacts of the tech industry on San Francisco, you could certainly choose a better example.

Rebecca Skinner
Rebecca Skinner

I go to the Opera, a half-subscription meaning five or six times a year. At $27 a ticket, it's a steal !

I would never buy black coffee and a piece of toast for $6 though. It's all a matter of priorities and avoiding ridiculous hipster restaurants.

Trip Small
Trip Small

Great article, wish more people are listening.