Tourists swallow higher prices at Martha Lou’s

Martha Lou Gadsden, at rear, has finally bumped up the menu prices for her home cooking. (Hanna Raskin)

Customers generally aren’t complaining about a recent price hike at Martha Lou’s Kitchen, suggesting that if a soul food restaurant attracts enough tourist support, it can charge what it needs to survive.

“Every week, something going up,” says owner Martha Lou Gadsden, who in 1983 started renting a retired service station on Morrison Drive so she could sell hot dogs and soda. As she told the Southern Foodways Alliance’s oral historian in a 2013 interview, “We moved on from there to lima beans and rice and chicken, and then we moved on up and up and up ‘til I got a full dinner.”

Gadsden, now 86, has maintained those menu items. But over the years, she says, the price of chicken has jumped from 29 cents a pound to more than $1 a pound. The cost of beef has sustained an even steeper increase.

“I try to keep things reasonable, but food went higher,” Gadsden says.

So last year, Gadsden raised the price of a meat-and-three plate from $8.50 to $9.50. Then she experimented with charging $10.50. And then she asked a grand-niece to design new menus, which list the price as $14 plus tax. The fee for additional side items ranges from $2.50 to $5 apiece.

At Addielee’s in North Charleston, which specializes in the same kind of home-style cooking, a plate costs $7.99 and includes white rice, a choice of two sides and a cornbread muffin.

According to Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, many black-owned restaurants with soul food menus suffer financially because they emphasize community support: In addition to contributing generously to charitable causes, soul food restaurants often aim to keep their prices within every potential customer’s budget.

“We love an atmosphere where all walks of life can come and be comfortable,” Ragina Saunders, whose family briefly operated Craves Soul Food, told The Post and Courier in 2014. “One of the challenges we had is we wanted to keep it to $5-$7 a plate. But to keep the food authentic, it costs us $5-$7 a plate. Believe it or not, oxtail is now considered to be a gourmet item in Europe; the prices are sky high.”

When upscale restaurants make room on their menus for oxtails and pigs feet, Miller has said, they hurt soul food restaurants by driving up the cost of formerly affordable ingredients. But they’re also helping well-off eaters reconsider the assumption that fried chicken ought to be cheap. At Husk, for example, a fried chicken plate with marinated tomatoes; farro salad and ricotta costs $17.

That may explain why Martha Lou’s patrons have mostly gone along with the new pricing scheme. A few diners have posted grievances to Yelp: “Don’t know why Yelp listed this as a one dollar sign for price: $85 for 5 people is not what I’d bargained for,” Jon D. of Knoxville wrote earlier this month. “It’s way overpriced,” Sandy G. of Jacksonville Beach declared back in March. Another Yelper expressed dismay that only the three cheapest sides ordered are included in the plate price, so he was charged $5.50 for macaroni-and-cheese instead of 75 cents for cornbread, bringing his total bill to $21.

Gadsden’s daughter Lillie Mae Gadsden allows that the new menus don’t precisely reflect what customers pay: Dessert, for example, is listed at $6 per slice of cobbler or cake, but customers are only charged $5.

The restaurant’s clientele, which is now almost exclusively white, is apparently willing to accept the ambiguity in exchange for eating at a restaurant praised by Sean Brock and featured on Andrew Zimmern’s show; Martha Lou’s will have another star turn on the upcoming season of Top Chef.

“My people is from out-of-town,” says Martha Lou Gadsden, who’s succcesfully parlayed fame into steady customer traffic – and is now positioned to profit from it.