Why Small Cities Have Great Food

Jun 2017

 

“Most of us have fond memories of food from our childhood. Whether it was our mom’s homemade lasagna or a memorable chocolate birthday cake, food has a way of transporting us back to the past.

– Homaro Cantu

 

“Food is for eating, and good food is to be enjoyed… I think food is, actually, very beautiful in itself.

– Delia Smith”

 

I’m from a small town called Darwin, in the north of Australia. I never realised it growing up but Darwin has amazing food. I moved to Melbourne a few years ago after touring as an artist for a few years and one of the things that drew me there was the claim that Melbourne had amazing food. That’s true, the food is amazing. But not as amazing as Darwin. But I never really knew why.

I finally figured out why today. It’s because of population statistics. Darwin has a population of nearly 250,000 people while Melbourne is over 4 million. This may not explain very much at face value, but the effect this larger population has on food is dramatic. It actually makes food worse. The reason is simple, supply and demand. It was explained to me by a friend.

By analogy with a simple Yiros stall. A Yiros is a simple wrap with meat, bread, some salad and a tsatziki garlic sauce. That’s it. Darwin has a Yiros stall at a market which makes the best Yiros I’ve ever had. It is better than every Yiros or Souvlaki I’ve had in Melbourne or Sydney or anywhere else. The reason why? It’s because Darwin has a small population.

In Darwin, if you make an average Yiros, no-one buys from you, they buy from the best Yiros store instead. And the best Yiros store can service all of the customers who want to buy a Yiros. The Demand is serviceable by the one store. So with the competition vying for basically all of the Yiros market. People iterate on their food to try and create the best Yiros. Not just a good one, a great one.

In Melbourne, the population is much larger. If you make an average Yiros in Melbourne you will still have a lot of customers buying from you because there’s so many more people who want to buy it. Even if you make an inferior product. So you don’t need to iterate on your food to make better food. You will still have customers and a successful business if you make an average Yiros. So why make a great one?

Even if you do make a great one, you physically can’t service all the people that want a Yiros. And in a big city, they can’t even find you. They go to their local store instead. By having a large population, you capture a percentage of the market just by making a good product. And the gains of making an amazing one are not commensurate. You already feel like you’re making great food because people are buying from you, right?

This is why I would hear restaurateurs in big cities telling me how great their food is, but I’d try it and not think it was that special. It’s because they have customers. They have customers telling them how good the food is and they believe them. But a lot of those customers are not buying from them because it’s amazing food. But just because there are a lot of people who want that kind of food and it’s close by.

Restaurants that make good food in cities where there are a lot of people will have a lot of customers. The good food places have customers so they don’t need to improve their food and compete with each other to make their good food, great. They don’t need to make amazing food to have a successful business. They just need to pass a certain threshold of good. Because in a big city, things are far away. People will often choose good food nearby over amazing food far away. In a small city, amazing food is almost always nearby so they will usually choose that. 

If you are in a small city and don’t make the best of some food item, something amazing. You go out of business. But in a big city, you can make something average and still have a successful business. Just because there is so many more people. There is a market and demand for everything. And no single food maker has the capacity to satisfy all of the demand. Their supply of food is finite. So that greater demand and finite supply creates a situation where suppliers do not need to compete as fiercely to capture some of the demand and have successful businesses.

This results in good food, but not great food. It results in a large number of restaurants with good food and successful businesses. But very few places with really exceptional food. A rising tide lifts all boats. In a hurricane, even a turkey can fly. In small cities, there isn’t as much demand. The demand is less than the supply of individual businesses. So more businesses compete for a smaller demand and make better food as a result; because the best restaurant will get all of the customers. And a great Yiros restaurant in a small city can make enough food for everyone who wants one. 

This is why the best food is usually found in small cities. And food capitals of the world that are famous for their great food might find that they actually aren’t. By being in a small market, you have to compete extra hard to gain customers. That competition makes your food better. In the food business, the winner is one who makes better food.

I always thought that Melbourne made amazing food. But that’s just because I believed our own hype. I had a similar experience in major cities in Europe. When you’re surrounded by good, you don’t realise that it’s not great. I think lots of people who live in big cities start to believe this too.

The truly great food, is in small cities.

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