What a $30 lunch looks like. Photo: Chris Crowley
Life in New York is filled with moments of sticker shock: $22 for a dirty martini, $5 for a slice of pizza, $3,950 a month to rent a studio with bad light in Prospect Heights. For better or worse, New Yorkers get used to it … until something comes along that is so offensively priced it snaps everyone out of complacency and reminds us just how hellishly expensive this city can be. That was the situation this week when a Reddit user came across a ham-and-cheese sandwich that costs — before tax — $29. Was there anything immediately apparent that would warrant such a price? Not at all. In fact, its plastic wrapping and pre-made construction made it look, at best, like a Pret a Manger knockoff, or maybe the nicest-looking sandwich you’d find at a to-go counter in La Guardia.
Which is why anyone who’s seen the post might have thought, Is this a joke? The next Balenciaga pope? But this is no hoax. In fact, things only get worse with increased scrutiny. Looking again, I realized that the egg sandwich next to the $29 ham-and-cheese was priced at $24. I also realized that the labeling on the package clearly marked it as a sandwich for sale at E.A.T., the casual market and takeout shop on the Upper East Side that’s long been owned by Eli Zabar, and which is somewhat notorious for its luxury pricing.
Still, $29 for a ham sandwich is nuts. That’s $1 more than Barbuto charges for a smoked-salmon pizza. It’s the same price as the most expensive item on the entire menu at Hart’s (an entrée of seared tuna with “creamy potatoes, fennel, and salsa verde”). For $29, someone could buy three cheeseburgers at S&P and still have $2 leftover to put toward the tip. It’s safe to assume that this could be the most expensive ham-and-cheese sandwich in America.
The more I thought about it, the more trouble I had wrapping my brain around the idea that a prewrapped ham sandwich could cost $30. Surely Reddit had missed something, or there was some kind of mistake. I knew that I would need to see this for myself, so I got on the subway and took the trip up to Madison and 80th for lunch.
My eyes confirmed the $29 price to be true as well as that $24 egg salad. A salmon sandwich broke the $30 barrier. I swallowed hard and took the ham-and-cheese up to the register. “Why does this cost so much?” I casually inquired. “Because it’s two sandwiches,” the employee responded, a talking point that was repeated by a representative when I emailed about the price — and one that was immediately undermined by the label on the sandwich itself, which was clearly marked “1 pc.”
It’s true that, within the cellophane wrapping, there were two discrete sandwich constructions. It’s also true that they could justifiably be considered “two halves.” But let’s give E.A.T. the benefit of the doubt for a moment, because even at $14.50 per “sandwich,” something is amiss. I have never seen a more regular-ass sandwich in my life. The ham was … fine! Same with the slices of cheese. There was some mustard, the “health bread” seemed like rebranded multigrain, and the deadening chill of the fridge remained evident in every bite. (In the interest of journalistic rigor, I also reluctantly purchased the $24 egg-salad sandwich to see if it fared any better; it needed some salt.)
On one hand — the one not holding a sandwich — it was nice to have my suspicions confirmed: This ham-and-cheese is nothing special. On the other hand, I worried that by buying the sandwich at all, whatever my intentions had been, I was directly supporting the pricing strategy. Has anyone else willingly paid this much for the same sandwich? I guess they probably have. High prices are part of the deal in New York. Ripoffs don’t have to be.