Saturday, May 30, 2015

Price of a Slice

The Big Apple is known for many things. The Empire State Building. Yankee Stadium. Broadway. Coney Island. The list goes on and on, almost too numerous to enumerate. And that's just the physical stuff. At least as many people come to New York to eat as to look. You name it, it's served here: French, Italian and Chinese, of course, but also Ethiopian and Caribbean, Barbeque and Cajun, Druze and Jerk. It's a plate of dreams: if you cook it, they will come.

Still, almost none of it beats a simple slice of pizza on the go. And that slice tastes even better when it only sets you back a buck. Mind you, I'm not saying that dollar pizza is empirically better than more expensive slices. I am saying that when you perform a high level quantitative analysis, and calculate price vs. value vs. epicurean satisfaction, it's hard to come out on the losing side of this particular equation.

I won't say I am hooked on the stuff, but am most certainly a user. So when I was running between appointments near Bryant Park in Manhattan, and had a few spare minutes at lunch time, I headed to Sixth Avenue where I knew there were a string of these establishments. But as I turned the corner, I stopped in my tracks. The storefront I was aiming for was still there in all its rundown glory, but the sign up front now proudly proclaimed "Fresh Slice: $1.50." The planet had tilted on its axis.

To be fair, I never understood how they were able to sell a slice for a dollar. At eight slices to a pie, that's, let's see, eight dollars. A whole pie near me usually costs twice that, maybe more. Even allowing for the most bargain basement brands of sauce, cheese and flour, it's hard to see how you get the price down that low unless it's a Chinese knockoff procured via Ebay, which would take 4 weeks to get to you in a shoddy envelope. So a 50% markup was certainly more in keeping with the economic realities that must exist in the pizza making world. Still, it was as if someone had told me that Santa Claus wasn't for real.

Not wanting to accept this glacial shift without confirmation, I walked a few blocks further south to check out some of the shop's sisters. Sure enough, each had a sign out front confirming the new price point. Accepting the situation on the ground, I peeled three bills instead of two off my money clip, stuffed the two slices into my face, then popped a Tic Tac and headed to my meeting.

But as I started to think about it, I realized that all of these places had changed their price at the same time. While it's possible they were all owned by the same Pizza Cartel though some shadowy Cayman Islands blind trust, I suspected otherwise. True, they all seemed more or less clones of one another, and many even sported similar names: Fresh Pizza, Express Pizza, Fresh Express Pizza and so on. But several years ago I recalled a slice price war, where one establishment dropped their price and another matched it, then bested it. Detente was eventually reached, and the "about a dollar" price point was settled upon, with some places posting 99 cent signs, others slightly higher, though a crisp bill usually got you a slice regardless of what the sign stated.  

So if they were indeed different establishments, were we talking price fixing on at least an urban scale? We've seen it in banks and milk, in airlines and art, so why wouldn't pizza slices be fair game for greed and market domination? To be fair, it you're going to try and control a market, the amount of risk and effort it takes seems antithetical to using pizza slices as your vehicle. But I guess that just shows how little vision I have as a robber baron.

These thoughts tumbled though my head over the next few days as I went about my usual business. Then once again I found myself racing between a meeting in midtown at noon and the garage where my car was parked. There, as I turned the corner on Eighth Avenue, was a stand and a sign that proudly proclaimed "$.99 Pizza." Maybe I was too hasty. Maybe there really is a Santa Claus.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves pizza. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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