Inflation weighs on legendary Spanish lunch menu

MADRID (AFP) – Invented in the 1960s to attract tourists, Spain’s three-course menu del dia has long been considered the city’s best offering.

But with inflation hovering around 10%, its affordability is under threat as restaurants look for ways to save.

For a starter, a main course and a dessert or a coffee (or both), bread and a drink, the average price is around 12.8 EUR (12.60 USD), according to figures from the Hosteleria de España, the main Spanish hospitality association representing the hotel and catering sector.

Offered by almost every Spanish restaurant, its price makes it a popular option in a country where people eat out frequently.

“Everyone chooses it,” said Sara Riballo, in her thirties, sitting on a terrace in central Madrid.

“We eat several times a week at the restaurant and we generally opt for the menu because it’s cheaper, it’s faster and it’s quite varied,” confirms his colleague Estefania Hervas.

Spanish restaurants serve an average of four million menu del dia every day in the country of 47 million people, the hotel association said.

Customers sit on a restaurant terrace next to a board displaying the daily menu in the Spanish capital of Madrid. PHOTO: AFP

The idea was invented almost six decades ago when Spain was under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

A ministerial order has been issued that all restaurants must offer a “tourist menu” to cater for the growing waves of foreign visitors to the Spanish coast.

The decree was registered in the official bulletin of the Spanish State, stipulating that from August 1, 1964, the menu must include, at the “minimum”, a soup, a main course, a dessert, a drink and bread.

The tradition has lasted until today, where it acts as a sort of barometer of the Spanish economy, said the general secretary of the hotel association Emilio Gallego.

“It’s a very, very popular way to eat lunch with millions sold every day across the country. It’s something we constantly monitor,” he said.

Describing itself as “extremely worried about the effects of inflation and rising prices in recent months”, the association found that three quarters of its restaurants had increased the price of their menu del dia between November 2021 and April 2022.

And that was before inflation peaked in July at 10.8%.

In recent months, the price of olive oil has increased by 42.5% along with the cost of bread, milk, eggs, meat and pasta, not to mention spiraling electricity bills, refrigeration or gas for stoves and ovens.

With the industry “hit hard by rising energy and raw material costs at a time when it was still recovering from the health crisis”, it had no choice but to raise prices, Gallego said.

In most cases, restaurants have increased the price of their menu del dia by 10 to 15%, an increase of between 1 and 1.5 euros.

At Café Gijon, an iconic restaurant on Madrid’s central Castellana boulevard, they serve up to 250 meals a day, priced at EUR 15 each.

But manager Jose Manuel Escamilla said prices are expected to rise in the coming weeks.

“Everything goes up: the price of electricity and mortgage costs have exploded. If things continue like this, we will not survive.

“It’s difficult because it will affect our customers, but at the end of the day, if we don’t, we won’t be able to operate,” he said.

Many restaurants are looking for other ways to save money and protect their margins.

At a restaurant in one of Madrid’s upscale neighborhoods, they now order bulk meat and whole fish rather than pre-cut portions because the price is lower, one of his shoppers admitted on condition of anonymity.

Gallego thinks other restaurants will adapt by creating other formats, such as a two-course option of a main course with a starter or dessert.

At Valgame Dios in Madrid’s Chueca district, the number of dishes on offer has already been reduced.

“Instead of three or four starters, we have two,” explained waitress Laura Rubio, who said she was “just waiting to see what happens” and whether that would put off diners.

Like other clients, the 47-year-old screenwriter Helio Mira shows courage.

“It’s not just the price of the menu del dia that’s going up but the price of living in general, but what can we do?” he said.

“We just have to weather the storm.”

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