The Dish: Q-and-A with James Mark, Owner of North

The popular West Side restaurant will start raising prices in response to the cost of sourcing more food locally and providing fair wages for employees.

James Mark made waves recently when he posted a message on his restaurant’s website announcing that he is going to start raising prices to reflect the real cost of making and serving his food. This comes after years of undercharging at north, Mark says, and he wants everyone to understand why.

Is it possible to run a restaurant sustainably while maintaining affordable prices?

It depends on what you think is affordable. I think restaurants are broken as a system, to be quite honest. If you’re producing food at low costs, either you’re exploiting animals and the land by buying factory farmed meat and monocrops or you’re exploiting farm workers. If you’re not doing that and you’re sourcing well, then you're exploiting kitchen workers. And if you’re not doing any of those things, you're exploiting yourself.

So which is it at north? Who are you exploiting to keep prices down?

I don't make any money now. We’ve been increasing wages and buying more local ingredients over the past few years, but we haven't been raising prices as we should be. There was a point when I was twenty-six and I didn’t need to make any money, but now I'm thirty-one and I have a kid on the way. The sustainability of it all came under fire in the last year. We reached a breaking point, and I had to make a decision.

Why didn’t you raise prices to keep up with expenses at the restaurant?

The reason our prices are suppressed is because of my own crazy anxieties. I constantly worry about accessibility. When I opened north in 2012, I wanted it to be a place where someone who makes $10 an hour and works forty hours a week could afford to come eat. Now it’s a mixed bag. We have some regulars, but on the weekends, we’re a destination restaurant. The West Side of Providence is home to so many artists, and it bums me out that they aren't able to come eat here except on special occasions. I don’t want to become a special occasion restaurant.

In the message you wrote, you mention that farmland — and therefore local ingredients — is more expensive in Rhode Island than in the rest of the country. Can you explain why?

Because Rhode Island is surrounded by water, most of the land in the state is not arable. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I can tell you farmland in the state is really expensive. I have employees who have left to start farms, and they go to western Massachusetts. That’s why local meat is really expensive in this state. You have to pay a lot of money for it — whether it’s a carbon tax, land price or animal husbandry and skill — and you should be paying a lot for meat. In addition to that, to make it work at all, you have to buy the whole animal, and that brings issues like storage and space to process. We get a whole pig once a month and sheep three or four times a month. And when we get it in, we have to process it right away. Buying local meat is affordable if I’m cooking it at home, but I have to flip that around to $45 per pound to pay for labor. Suddenly, it becomes very expensive.

Are you purely driven by your creative vision, or do you consider the cost of ingredients when you are deciding what to buy?

As far as pricing is concerned, we have to start putting limitations on ourselves. We don't use scallops that much anymore. They’re too expensive. It’s not about choosing lower quality items, it’s about choosing less expensive items. In America those two qualities are often linked, but it’s not always true. You can get a high quality vegetable that is less expensive than low quality meat. Restriction breeds creativity.

What about seafood? Rhode Island is the Ocean State after all. Is it cheaper to buy seafood locally than meat or vegetables?

Seafood is very affordable. And it’s gotten more affordable in last few years. It used to be that fish got shipped to Boston and then back here, but in the last few years, a lot of chefs have cultivated relationships with fishermen at Point Judith. I work directly with a few fishermen down there. So that’s a place where we can get quality and offer a lower price. We sell our oysters for $2 each whereas in New York City, you have to charge $3.50. 

Are there benefits of sourcing locally in Rhode Island despite the high price of meat and produce?

That’s the beautiful thing about Rhode Island and Providence. It’s a city that supports restaurants like mine, but it’s also small enough that I can drive thirty minutes to get to an actual farm. And I can drive forty-five minutes and get to the docks and meet my fisherman. So we know each other, and developing those relationships is huge, and it’s a lot of the [decision] of choosing to use products from them. Instead of shipping my dollars out of state, I know exactly who I am giving my dollars to. I am supporting this farmer or fisherman’s family, and I feel way better about that than calling a number and having my food show up on a truck.

Have you started raising prices yet? If not, when will you start?

We’re going to do it slowly. It’s going to be a dollar or two here and there. But it will happen, and it’s already happening. At the end of the day, my employees can still afford to eat at my restaurant, and that is my guiding rule. We’re not raising prices to get rich. If I make $500 a week for the 100 hours a week I work, then that’s fine.

How have people reacted to the price changes you’ve implemented so far?

Generally, the reaction has been very positive. The farmers have been telling us to raise our prices for a while. They think I’m crazy. But we’ve had people come in and say, "This is more expensive than it used to be." And that hurts me. I think about that a lot more. But that’s my brain. That’s just something I have to deal with.

3 Luongo Memorial Squ., Providence, foodbynorth.com

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