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With inflation, can you really make a cheaper cheeseburger at home?

The value of eating out in Tampa Bay versus the value of cooking it yourself, weighed by a hungry journalist.
 
A cheeseburger served at El Cap restaurant in St. Petersburg. It’s fresh, charred, tangy and savory. It’s big enough, but not an unwieldy mess. The fatty burger juice increasingly soaks the bottom bun as the meal progresses.
A cheeseburger served at El Cap restaurant in St. Petersburg. It’s fresh, charred, tangy and savory. It’s big enough, but not an unwieldy mess. The fatty burger juice increasingly soaks the bottom bun as the meal progresses. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Times ]
Published Dec. 20, 2022|Updated Dec. 27, 2022

Every element of a cheeseburger tells its own little tale of markets.

Lettuce, for instance, tripled in price this year after a drought and a virus stifled iceberg and romaine supplies. And while most everything costs more in 2022, beef has actually gone down year over year as supply has improved.

Consumers don’t always think about this stuff the way produce brokers or restaurant owners must in times of inflation. But they always want tasty cheeseburgers for a decent price.

One thing I know: If you want a tasty cheeseburger in St. Petersburg, go to El Cap.

I visited the vintage sports bar on Fourth Street N after work on a recent Tuesday seeking to compare the costs of a restaurant burger versus cooking one at home. Then I compared both to a McDonald’s quarter pounder. On value, there is more to consider than price, but we’ll get there.

This is also the inspiring true story of how one reporter came to eat five cheeseburgers in a 24-hour period — a high and low point of my life that I do not recommend.

El Cap

Behind the bar, a longtime employee named Mary extolled the merits of El Cap’s never-frozen burgers. She guided an impromptu history tour through the restaurant, then extracted the details of my personal life like a therapist. She later served me a second Budweiser even though I thought I’d said, no thanks.

El Cap’s burger excels in the fundamentals. It’s fresh, charred, tangy and savory. It’s big enough, but not an unwieldy mess. The fatty burger juice increasingly soaks the bottom bun as the meal progresses.

El Cap restaurant at 3500 Fourth St N, St. Petersburg.
El Cap restaurant at 3500 Fourth St N, St. Petersburg.

El Cap made sense for this comparison because it offers burgers a la carte without fries. No potato economics mucking up the math.

El Cap’s cheeseburger cost 75 cents in 1977 and $2.30 in 1997. Today, the recommended way with lettuce, tomato, onion (30 cents) and criss-crossed pickle spears (20 cents) costs $7.45, or $7.97 after tax, and $9.56 after Mary’s well-deserved 20% tip.

When I asked Mary if the price of El Cap’s burgers had risen like everything else lately, she glanced around and spoke in a hush. The price increased by 45 cents about a year back and another 25 cents a month ago.

While I waited for mine, a woman nearby praised the onion rings, then ordered onion rings on my behalf. After that, she took a boxed burger patty home to her Maltese-Shih Tzu mix because, she said, if the dog smelled El Cap on her without getting some it would be resentful.

Another patron insisted I dip my onion rings in spicy mustard, which El Cap makes by mixing Colman’s powder with Yuengling beer. Thank you, sir.

I ordered a second cheeseburger to go, for research purposes, thinking I needed a sample to reverse engineer. I opened the box later, just to look, and immediately ate it standing over the sink.

McDonald’s

A quarter pounder, procured from McDonald's on Fourth Street S in St. Petersburg.
A quarter pounder, procured from McDonald's on Fourth Street S in St. Petersburg. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Times ]

Did you know that McDonald’s prices aren’t uniform across the U.S.? A quarter pounder costs around $5.04 in Hawaii, or 44% more than the U.S. average. It’s about $3.71 in Mississippi.

The magic is that quarter pounders everywhere taste identical — like delicious salt. The afternoon after El Cap, I bought a quarter pounder in St. Pete, where it cost $4.79, or $5.13 with tax. Cheap, comparatively.

I thought of a recent Saturday Night Live sketch parodying Arby’s real-life 5-for-$10 deal offering five roast beef sandwiches for $10, and other “suspicious” fast-food bargains. (Arby’s hasn’t done 5 for $10 since inflation took off.)

“We’re struggling to understand the physics of how this much roast beef is $10,” Mikey Day says in the sketch. “Arby’s is a for-profit business, right? … I couldn’t make five roast beef sandwiches at home for $10.”

Many factors contribute to low fast-food sandwich prices, but mostly economies of scale. Selling millions of burgers daily means massive purchases from suppliers happy to offer deals that would be out of reach for consumers. Even at a low profit margin per McDonald’s burger, selling millions of burgers makes money.

Also, fast-food places typically mark up coffee and soda more than 1,000%.

Homemade burger

A cheeseburger prepared at home in the style of El Cap.
A cheeseburger prepared at home in the style of El Cap. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Times ]

Before I could go home to chase my burger lunch with a burger dinner, I had to go to my other happy place: Publix. Sure, Trader Joe’s has 19-cent bananas. We’re going with Publix. There are seven Publix stores within 6 miles of my house. There are about 20 in Pinellas County. Some sit directly across the street from each other. Convenience counts.

I decided to cook two burgers, just in case the first one got messed up or something (wink).

That was the day I learned you can buy precise weights of ground beef if you ask the meat department. I procured a half-pound of ground chuck, two burgers’ worth, for $1.13 per burger.

I also discovered yellow American cheese from the deli counter. My previous assumption was that American cheese was always segregated far from the fancier cheeses, born directly into the world as pre-sliced, individually wrapped singles. Not true.

I paid 32 cents each for two slices of American cheese, the best cheese for a cheeseburger. No further questions.

All the other ingredients, unfortunately, were not available in single-burger quantities.

The nicely toasted buns at El Cap didn’t seem special, and bread is truly McDonald’s’ weak point, so I did not feel bad buying six Publix-brand buns on sale for $2.

Long-sliced pickles like El Cap uses were $2.79 a jar. The smallest beefsteak tomato available was $2.72, at $3.49 a pound. Iceberg lettuce was $2.99 for a head, which is enough for, I don’t know, 10,000 burgers? A small onion cost $1.17.

I’m not counting mayo. I’m assuming most have it already. And if not, just take some packets from a Chick-fil-A or something (disclaimer: with a food purchase).

I cooked the burgers in a cast-iron skillet and ate the first one greedily. Then I walked into the other room, told my partner I felt ill from too many burgers, walked back into the kitchen and ate the other one. Then I lay down.

Making just one burger this way cost a whopping $13.11. However, with the leftover ingredients, adding another quarter-pound patty and cheese slice for $1.45 makes two burgers $14.56. That’s only $7.28 per burger, beating El Cap prices by 31%.

Six burgers at home would have cost $20.34, or a thrifty $3.39 per burger. That’s $1.74 cheaper than even McDonald’s.

Final thoughts

On tastiness, it was a wash. All three burgers had their charms, variety is the spice of life, etc.

On pure price, McDonald’s wins easily if you’re alone, though car burgers are inherently a little sad when you’re solo. For a mere four bucks more, you could go to El Cap and meet a guy who loves mustard, a lady with a demanding Maltese-Shih Tzu and a bartender who really wants to meet your girlfriend sometime. It’s great.

For a large family, it is by far cheaper to eat burgers at home, and equally cheap for a single person planning to eat all six burgers, though you may have to account for the cost of statins later.

For a couple, it’s $10.26 at McDonald’s, and you’re at McDonald’s. It’s $14.56 in the comfort of home or $19.13 at El Cap. That means for less than five bucks more you avoid a trip to the store and time prepping and cooking, what economists call “opportunity costs.”

Use that time to learn Italian (ha, but seriously, enjoy another episode of “90 Day Fiancé”). Lastly, cooking at home was kind of fun, but at the end of it my kitchen was coated in grease, I was coated in grease and I felt like I was grease.

There’s a time, and a budget, for all options. Follow your joy. Say hi to Mary.