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Why a $19 Airport Salad Has Us Very, Very Worried

July 7, 2014 at 5:54 PM | by | ()

On Sunday, I was sitting in Terminal 4 at LAX, having a coffee at Campanile during a layover. I was seated in one of the last bar stools, right by the glass display case where sandwiches and salads are sold to go. I was enjoying this seat for the sake of people watching, but for the most part I was minding my own business.

Then, someone came up and bought a salad, and I almost fell off my bar stool. I couldn’t believe what the charge had been for the chicken Caesar salad, the one in the clear plastic take-away container. I also couldn’t believe the customer had gone through with the purchase after he heard the price. Ready for this? Including tax, $19 and change!

When the customer left, I flagged over the barmaid. Did you just sell a $19 salad? She rolled her eyes and nodded her head. It's ridiculous, she told me. I always make sure I say the price out loud before ringing it up. Customers yell at me all the time when they hear the price, she said. I told her it was a shame that she had to take the brunt of it all, but I didn't mean it.

In reality, customers have every right to be upset. It's absolute insanity. And it didn't stop with the salad. Next door at La Provence, simple sandwiches were over $14 with tax. One man scoffed at the price. Don't bother, he said, waving off the girl who was reaching for the display case. That's too much for a sandwich.

Anyone who has been to Terminal 4 at LAX knows that it is one of the worst of the larger US airports in which to have a layover. It is extremely small and tight and is essentially a single hallway. Even if you wanted to go outside of security to another terminal, the layout of LAX makes that difficult as you currently need to walk a good distance from one to the other (although as we reported a few weeks ago, this is in the process of changing).

Those limited options, combined with high overhead, have turned something basic - getting something to eat at the airport - into a traumatic experience. To those of you who might recite the classic refrain, “Well, Will, that’s just the way it is at airports these days, stop bitching,” I ask you to wake up and recognize that this is not the way it has to be. It would be easy for me to point to airports around the world in Europe and Asia where this type of price-gouging is not as prevalent, but we don’t even have to go across an ocean for an example.

Look no further than the movement at Phoenix Sky Harbor, where some restaurants offer “street-level” pricing. That is, the food costs exactly what it would cost if you went to the same restaurant in the city. In fact, Sky Harbor is home to the cheapest airport beer we've ever seen.

The only reason airport vendors get away with it is because we enable them. And I get it, because sometimes we truly have no option other than to go without, and a hungry traveler is no doubt a cranky traveler. I don't suggest we punish ourselves. I do, however, think we seriously need to consider the direction our actions are taking us here in the States.

We need to react the way the man did to the sandwich, and there needs to be a huge movement towards bringing your own food to the airport. At least then, we limit our food spending to layovers. Grabbing a quick bite at the airport shouldn’t only be for the luxury traveler, and every time we buy a $19 salad, we take another step towards ensuring that air travel will never get more affordable.

[Photos: Will McGough]

Archived Comments:

Campanile name

The airport outpost is obviously cashing in on the Campanile name (it was once a great restaurant from chef Nancy Silverton on La Brea, it closed last year) but $19 for a salad in a take-out container is terrible. The La Brea Bakery which has some of the best sandwiches in LAX are also terribly marked up. I wish the rest of LAX could be like the new Tom Bradley terminal or like the Delta terminal (T5) which has a Ford's Filling Station, a Lemonade and even an outpost of the Fairfax farmers market.

Blame the Hourly Employee?

"I told her it was a shame that she had to take the brunt of it all, but I didn't mean it."

There are lots of valid points in this opinion piece. That said, I can't wrap my head around the notion that you think a hourly employee should be subjected to verbal abuse over something she has no control to change. What purpose does that serve?

Re: Blame the Hourly Employee?

Few things: 1) I think when you accept a job, you decide to be associated with a company. There has to be accountability there. 2) Customer feedback is the only way this type of thing can change. The more pressure customers put on employees, the more likely they will take the feedback to the boss. If everyone simply smiled and walked away, no one would have any motivation to trickle the feedback down the line to the decision makers and business would go on as usual, with happy employees selling $19 salads. 3) That said, let's not blow it all out of proportion. I don't think the employee should be subjected to "abuse,"... just feedback. And for the record, as I said, I lied to her, and tried to make her feel better. In retrospect, being more aggressive with my feedback might have been better in bringing about change.

Re: Associated with a Company?

Seriously? I thought your original comment was rather harsh, but your defense of it was worse - then I looked at your profile and the hypocrisy of it all became crystal clear. Go back to reporting about the massages and wine tastings and B&Bs that you cover with such egalitarian delight. You probably spend more (on your expense account, no doubt) in one day than she makes in a week. I learned too much about the people behind Jaunted today. You just lost a reader.

Re: Associated with a Company?

So you're upset because I believe in customers giving feedback to businesses? Not sure how else you are supposed to give feedback in that situation other than to the employee standing in front of you. Also not sure where the idea that I want her to be "verbally abused" is coming from. All I'm saying is that I am happy that I saw multiple customers scoff at the price. That's how we bring about change...

It's okay if you disagree with me there but not sure it warrants a personal attack full of incorrect assumptions. Also not sure how writing about all aspects of travel makes me a hypocrite. Some things are worth the money. $19 salads are not.


Since the "verbal abuse" comes from my comment, I'll explain. In your piece, you write that the employee said that people "yell at me all the time when they hear the price". Then you write that although you didn't tell her, you feel that she deserves to be the target of customer outrage (aka the yelling).

You expect a (potential) line employee to have the foresight request to see the menu prices before accepting a job. That's just silly. If a $19 salad is egregious enough that this woman should stay unemployed instead of taking this entry-level job, why didn't you do something similar? Couldn't you have bought coffee from someone that doesn't have such high prices on other menu items?

Finally, it's shocking that you think the only way to register feedback is via a line employee. If you have a complaint, you could ask for a supervisor. You could also contact Los Angeles World Airports, the owner/operator of the airport. And if you write for a travel blog, you could contact the company that runs the concession and ask them to make a public comment about that $19 salad. You don't simply yell at a line employee and walk away.

Re: Rationalization

She said customers "yell" at her... I'm guessing it's more of a scoff and a "that's ridiculous" than any type of verbal assault. I think this is getting a little carried away...  

I personally don't think it is silly to assume someone would vet their employer. I'm not saying she should pass on the job, but she should at least understand and anticipate that customers will have a reaction to a $19 salad. That's exactly what I said in the article after the photo break. "In reality, customers have every right to be upset." In that sense, I don't feel bad that she has to hear those reactions, because if I worked there, I would be surprised if someone didn't blink an eye. That's all I'm saying. I agree there are plenty of ways to give feedback (one of them is this article), but I also know that many changes happen on the front lines. I think the issue here is with the word "yell" (her words, not mine). You're imagining her being abused, when it's really something showing frustration and walking away.

I didn't know the salads cost $19 when I bought my $3 coffee. I will never spend money again at La Provence, and that was pretty much the entire point of this article... me saying I'm done with airport food, and calling for others to consider a similar stance in an attempt to bring about change. But that's gotten lost in your attempt to turn a comment about justified sticker shock into the idea that I like to yell at people. We're just talking about two different situations.      

Email me if you'd like to continue this discussion, but going forward, I'm only going to respond to comments here that pertain to the topic of skyrocketing airport food prices and what we can do about them.