'A cheeseburger at this point is a luxury': Why the all-American staple costs more this summer

Erin McCarthy, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Business News

Amber Lee has a hard time stomaching the ground beef section at her local Wegmans.

Lee eats beef. She just can't bring herself to pay for it.

"A cheeseburger at this point is a luxury," said Lee, 36, a mother of two from Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

As beef prices have surged, Lee, a part-time mental health counselor, and her husband, a UPS supervisor, have started opting mostly for meals centered on fish that they catch themselves along the Jersey Shore and cook at home.

If they go out to eat for a special occasion, Lee said, she refuses to pay more than $15 for a burger "unless it has the words Kobe or Wagyu in front of it," referring to higher-quality types of beef.

Consumers are feeling the sting of higher beef prices whether they're shopping for Memorial Day cookouts or grabbing a bite at McDonald's, where a quarter-pounder with cheese meal is now $12, more than double what it cost a decade ago.


Since the pandemic, food prices have risen more than 20%, according to the Federal Reserve. Over the past year, the cost of many staples has declined or moderated, but beef and veal prices have kept rising, up 7% over April 2023, according to the most recent Consumer Price Index. The continued rise is attributed in part to a cattle shortage and has led some consumers to opt for cheaper alternatives like chicken.

Several burger-joint owners in the city, suburbs, and down the Jersey Shore told The Inquirer that they're constantly weighing whether to raise prices, potentially driving away customers, or to find another way to absorb the rising costs, operating on even slimmer margins than usual.

"My hamburger has gone up a dollar a pound in the past nine months," said Pete Politarhos, owner of the Delaware County, Pennsylvania, franchise Zac's Hamburgers, which goes through more than 1,000 pounds of hamburger meat a week.

"I'm steadfastly trying to hold my prices for my customers," added Politarhos, whose stores sell a 3-ounce cheeseburger for $3.79. "I don't know how much longer it's going to last."


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