One of my guilty pleasures is cheesy bread. I don’t mean the typical American rolls- I’m talking about yuca bread. It’s this fantastic parmesan-y gooey roll from South America (Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia all have their own versions) that I discovered abroad a few years ago. But unless I make it myself or drive 40 minutes to the other end of town, I don’t get to eat my favorite snack. You can imagine how thrilled I was when I found it on a menu at a new “Latin-inspired” restaurant in my neighborhood. And you can definitely imagine my disappointment when their yuca bread was totally botched. In fact, most of the “Latin” food they served bared little resemblance to the food my Latin friends have been serving me for the last few years.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in Latin cuisine, but yuca bread is pretty straightforward to make- mix yuca flour, eggs, milk, cheese, bake. But somehow, this bread was missing all of the key components that made it my favorite food. No cheese, no gooeyness, no happy Emma. So why is it that such a basic, yummy, food is so hard to find? I rarely have the same issue with pizza or Indian food, so why yuca bread?
When I go to get pizza, I have a good idea of what different qualities of pizza taste like- if I drop $20 on a pizza that ends up being Little Caesar quality, I probably won’t go to that spot again unless they lower their prices substantially. There are a wide range of pizza qualities, but under each level, prices are fairly similar. If I want a cheap delivery pizza, Pizza Hut, Dominos, and Black Jack will all produce a similar quality of pizza at a similar price point. If Pizza Hut decides to jack up their prices or lower their quality, they will probably lose customers because the customers will just order from a competitor. Also, people eat pizza regularly enough that they get an idea of what a good pizza is.
The delivery pizza marketplace is close to what we would call “perfect competition”. A perfectly competitive market is where a bunch of producers make the exact same product and are therefore forced to match each others prices because there is no discernable difference between what each one of them is producing. Few of these perfectly competitive markets exist in real life, but many markets are very close. When there are a lot of people making a similar thing, there is more competition, and this forces prices down and quality up. Likewise, when there isn’t as much competition, prices can be hiked up and quality can be lower.
Let’s return to my cheesy bread conundrum. Drawing from the pizza discussion above, we can see that there are a few different reasons why yuca bread in Denver sucks. We could call it a problem with either producers or consumers, but it’s a cyclical issue. When there aren’t many people that make yuca bread in Denver, few consumers try yuca bread so there is (1) less demand for yuca bread and (2) an expected lower quality and higher price point. When I take my parents out to the “Latin-inspired” restaurant, they have no idea what yuca bread is, so they are willing to accept a lower quality than myself, a yuca bread aficionado. Because the yuca bread they had is mediocre, the restaurant won’t see a high demand for it, so they can (1) make terrible yuca bread and (2) charge a high price for it, because consumers aren’t super likely to drastically change their yuca bread demand any time soon.
Until yuca bread works itself into a staple of the American diet, this market issue (I would call it a catastrophe) won’t resolve itself. Because yuca bread is treated as a novelty and not something that people seek out because they genuinely enjoy eating it, there isn’t anything to push the quality up. Indian food isn’t necessarily something that most of us eat on a regular basis, but it’s also a food we seek out because it tastes really good. The value of indian food isn’t in its novelty- it’s that it’s inherently worthful to people that enjoy eating it. But the whole appeal of some foreign foods is that they are “weird” or “different”, which is fun to try once, but not something that consumers are going to seek out on a regular basis. At the end of the day, all I’m really concerned about is getting the largest possible amount of cheesy bread into my system, and for the time being, it looks like I’ll have to make it myself.