Barry Saunders

Some pay the price for fancy foods – and like it

Expensive restaurants have known this secret for a long time: to attract customers, you sell the sizzle, not the steak.

Whole Foods’ founders appear to have learned that lesson well.

The slab of meat you buy at any restaurant for $70 or the $9.95 one you get at an all-night truck stop diner both originated from the same place, and if you slather on enough onions and ketchup they’ll be gustatorily indistinguishable.

When you pay $70 for a steak, though, the hefty price is presumed to buy you certain things – like some taters, a tablecloth, a solicitous waiter, ambiance, people who don’t show their appreciation for a fine meal by loudly burping “The Star Spangled Banner.”

With a $9.95 truck-stop steak, you’ll settle for a mostly clean knife and fork.

That pre-packaged bucket of organic coleslaw from Whole Foods Market that you just paid twice what the Piggly Wiggly charges is also presumed to come with certain extras – the privilege of shopping with other socially conscious customers who share your value and good taste and the assurance that if someone hits your hybrid Subaru with a shopping cart out in the parking lot, they’ll leave a note.

After initially denying that they’d overcharged customers, Whole Foods’ founders admitted recently that yes, “mistakes” were made in the pricing of some of their pre-packaged foods in New York. The company had already been fined $800,000 in California for the same offense. The founders issued to their customers mea culpas and an apologia – when you pay Whole Food prices for organic, grain-fed, virgin beef, you don’t want a simply apology – and vowed to rectify the errors.

The thing that the owners of Whole Foods know that the public-pocketbook-protecting, do-gooder attorneys general don’t is that some people may like getting ripped off by so-called high-end stores.

The higher the price, in the words of a 1970s song by Little Sister, the nicer the nice, and higher prices are presumed to separate the wheat from the chaff, the classy from the riff-raff. Why else do so many people proudly pay $7 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks when one comparable could be had for way less?

Perhaps it was that third PBR I’d drank talking to me, but I could swear that when Whole Foods co-founders Walter Robb and John Mackey were on TV fake apologizing, they were blinking – like POWs – “You know we’re overcharging you but c’mon, admit: you love it, don’t you?”

Want to bet that they actually revel in the moniker “Whole Paycheck” that many use to describe their chain?

Whole Foods on its website touts its commitment to seafood sustainability, organic farming and animal welfare, all of which are things that could tend to raise its prices. Many of us would pay a little more to know that the hamburgers we just grilled and ate on the Fourth came from animals that were treated humanely and that the swordfish that’s still in the freezer because Uncle Rudy vowed that fish would never touch his grill was raised in a way that won’t deplete the ocean.

How come, though, a pear tart costs $5?

Years ago, there was a story – perhaps apocryphal but told as true – of a boutique owner who’d told an employee to mark some slow-selling scarves from $20 to $2. The clerk mistakenly marked the scarves at $200 – and they quickly sold out.

I always wondered who were the people who bought those scarves. They’re probably the same ones who proudly pay $28 a pound for halibut because it was read lullabies as it gestated.

Hey, whatever floats your seafaring vessel, pal. Here’s a tip, though, regardless of where you shop: if you see someone put ketchup on a $70 steak, flee their presence at once because you’re dining with a philistine.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or