The dollar slice in New York suddenly costs much more than 99 cents

The old price (99 Cents) has been pasted over. Not a good move from a marketing point of view. But that one dollar just isn’t enough anymore.Image Chantal Heijnen

The perfect pizza slice is a matter of balance. Too short in the oven and the dough will remain greasy and soggy. Too long, even a few seconds, and the pizza turns into a dry slice that cuts into your palate. Pizza baker Batin Abdul (33) bakes them for 5 minutes at 290 degrees Celsius. Not shorter, not longer.

Balance also dictates its price. Cheaper pizza brings in more business, but then it also has to wear out more to cover the costs. If the pizza becomes too expensive, the customers will stay away.

The 99 Cents Pizza of Utica in Brooklyn tipped the balance last month. The dirty facade, white with red letters, now has one spotless surface: over the ’99¢’ owner Abdul has pasted a poster with ‘$1.50’. Price increase here by definition means a name change. A painful decision, says Abdul. ‘But I had no choice. Flour, cheese, everything became too expensive.’

The United States is struggling with historically high inflation. For Americans, life has rapidly become more expensive. Last December, prices of goods and services were on average 7 percent higher than the year before, the sharpest increase in almost 40 years.

Nowhere does the – often somewhat abstract – issue of inflation become more concrete than at the 99 cents pizzeria, a quintessential New York phenomenon. The city has countless such establishments where you have been paying one dollar for a point of margherita for decades. With a dollar decreasing in value, many owners see no choice but to raise their price for the first time, or close their doors.

Even with the new price of one and a half dollars, Batin Abdul is still running at a loss, he says. “But if I raise the price even further, I won’t have a customer left.”

The 99 Cents Pizza is a quintessential New York phenomenon.  Image Chantal Heijnen

The 99 Cents Pizza is a quintessential New York phenomenon.Image Chantal Heijnen

Son of a bitch

High inflation is the biggest challenge facing Joe Biden’s presidency. The issue has put him on the defensive, even tempting him to a rare moment of rudeness after a Fox News reporter asked him if inflation wasn’t a political risk. That hit a nerve. “Stupid son of a bitch,” Biden muttered, into a microphone that was on.

In part, inflation is due to circumstances beyond its control: governments around the world are struggling with prices being pushed up by the pandemic. Production chains falter, raw materials are difficult to supply, restrictions and absenteeism are increasing labor costs – all factors that are responsible for high prices worldwide.

What Republicans are telling him now, however, is not only that Biden undertook action against inflation, but that he would have actively contributed to it.

They are referring to the huge $1,600 billion bailout package that Biden steered through Congress a year ago, in what was seen as his first major victory. The money was meant to boost the economy, but – critics warned – could drive inflation up. If citizens have more to spend while less is available, the logic goes, then prices will go up.

There is little doubt that both have happened: the economy is running, but inflation has gone through the roof. And Republicans are spearheading that in their campaign for the midterm elections in November, where they hope to win back a majority in Congress.

‘Political nightmare’

CNN called the inflation issue “a political nightmare” for the president. Biden has ‘contributed to his own political problems’, writes The New York Times last month in an editorial, “by ostensibly downplaying the dangers of inflation.” His policies come with a price: ‘economically, for the country, and politically, for himself’.

“I don’t believe it’s all Biden’s fault,” said Batin Abdul. “He can’t just solve the pandemic.” Still, for the first time, he is deeply concerned about his future.

“Last year I had to close five of my cases,” he says. “If it continues like this, there will be three more in the coming months.” He came to the US from Bangladesh when he was 16 to work in his uncle’s pizzeria. There he emerged as a purebred entrepreneur. At the age of twenty-two, Abdul opened his first business, in 2020 he owned eleven pizzerias in New York with his associates; all with pizza slices for one dollar.

Abdul also received support from the emergency package. “I could get $20,000, but the rent from this location alone is $10,000 a month.” Some pizzerias are looking for other solutions and are now cutting their pizza into twelve pieces instead of ten.

An additional problem for Abdul is that not only his purchasing became more expensive, but that his clientele mainly consisted of lunching office workers, and those people now work from home. To compensate for that, he has now raised the price by 50 cents in one go.

Endurance Race

The brand new $1.50 Pizza of Utica is engaged in an endurance race. Within a radius of a few hundred meters there are at least four places that still offer their pizza slices for one dollar. They take advantage of competitors that have already caved.

“We are busier than ever,” says Mohammed Islam (22) of the 99 Cent Supreme Pizza, two blocks away. “On a good day, we can sell two thousand slices.” To him, inflation is a double-edged blade. Now that people have less to spend, a one-dollar slice has become more attractive to customers, Islam says. But here again you encounter that diabolical balance: ‘We sell more pizza, and yet we earn less because of the high costs.’

Today is a good day for Islam. As the rain beats against the windows, customers crowd in front of the cramped counter. The fact that the higher price at its competitor contributes to this success is not acceptable to Islam. “Our pizza just tastes better,” he says. They go into the oven here for one minute, at 315 degrees.


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