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Sweet tea prices have gotten less sweet, some diners have noticed | Hanna Raskin

At tea time, everybody’s aggrieved (by the price)

Published on July 9, 2024 at 4:44 pm

With the average American on the hook this year for hundreds more dollars in car insurance, 60 cents doesn’t sound like a price hike worth lamenting. But some Jacksonville diners are frustrated by local restaurants’ charging more for sweet tea, as the retail price of tea has been relatively flat since early 2023.

“They have lost their mind charging $2.95-$3.95 for iced tea,” said Karen Delaney, a Baymeadows resident who shared a June 25 receipt from Culhane’s Irish Pub-Southside ($3.75) with Jacksonville Today. “I am not paying that for tea mixed with water.”

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Delaney alleges her tea glass was never refilled, further embittering her about the tea-flation situation.

Tea is a year-round fixture in the South, with the region leading the U.S. in per capita consumption. And when heat and humidity climb in the summertime, diners order iced tea as reflexively as they unroll the cutlery on their tables. That pattern has contributed to the theory that restaurant owners are marking up tea — often not even listed on menus — to cover increased costs of rent, labor and other items that can’t be sweetened with sugar.

According to foodservice research firm Technomic, non-alcoholic beverage prices rose 6.6% at restaurants nationwide in the last quarter of 2023, while alcoholic drink prices went up a mere 1%. In a release announcing the findings, Technomic managing partner Rich Shank warned restaurant owners that using soft drinks as a “financial crutch” could harm their bottom lines in the long run.

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“I would urge those restaurants to figure out what they’re doing to attachment rates,” he cautioned, which is the jargony way of saying that plenty of people are willing to give up tea for water.

While sweet tea is perhaps the drink most emblematic of mom-and-pops along the South’s Atlantic coast, it’s not just independent operators who are trying to capitalize on customers’ beverage habits. FinanceBuzz in May published a comprehensive chart of changes in fast food prices between 2014 and 2024, a period during which inflation was 31%. 

Over the same time period, the Jimmy John’s sandwich chain raised the price of its large drink by 68%. Still, at $2.61, that’s a better buy than tea at most places nowadays. A study published in June by Toast shows the average price of tea, a category comprising both hot and iced, is now $3.74 across all U.S. states. 

But tea enthusiasts pay more, on average, in three Southern states: Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, where the average price of restaurant tea is $4.17.

To get a clearer picture of the tea landscape in Jacksonville, Jacksonville Today contacted 10 area restaurants hailed frequently for their sweet tea aptitude: 

  • Sweet Mama’s Southern Homestyle Cookin, 
  • Southern Charm, 
  • The Potters House Soul Food Bistro, 
  • Treemendous BBQ, 
  • Shut Em Down Authentic Southern Restaurant, 
  • Louisiana Fish & Chicken, 
  • Flavva Restaurant, 
  • Miller’s Soulfood Kitchen, 
  • Southern Coast Seafood, and 
  • Julington Creek Fish Camp, where the staffer who answered the phone paused when asked for the going price of sweet tea.

“I think it’s like $3 a glass,” she said. “I can go check the menu.”

In fact, Julington charges $3.50, making it the most expensive source of sweet tea in the survey.

Chart by Megan Mallicoat, Jacksonville Today

On average, the restaurants polled charge $2.47 for sweet tea, with Sweet Mama’s taking the penny-pincher’s prize by asking only $1.49.

By Florida standards, $2.47 sounds like a bargain. But a review of available historical data reveals why Jacksonville iced tea adherents have lately found the drink’s price tough to swallow.

Thanks to Yelpers, to use an uncommon expression, pictures of restaurant menus remain online long after they’ve been updated, adjusted or retired. While not every listed restaurant has an associated photo archive, it’s possible to track iced tea price changes at half of the restaurants in this survey, including Louisiana Fish & Chicken, where the price of sweet tea has remained the same since 2013.

At the other four restaurants, though, sweet tea has gone up in price by as much as 59%.

Even with Louisiana’s enduring $1.49 factored into the mix, the average price of sweet tea at the five places is now $2.45, compared to $1.87 in 2019.

No wonder Delaney isn’t taking any chances.

“I understand inflation,” she said. “I understand things don’t cost what they used to. I don’t mind spending money on food. But I’ve never said, ‘Oh man, they had the best iced tea ever, and I can’t wait to go back no matter the cost.’”

So, now, when Delaney dines out five times a month with organized groups of friends, she’ll still ask for iced tea — but only after she’s asked for a price quote. It’s one more restaurant hassle she wasn’t seeking.

As she puts it, “That freaking tea is a thorn in my side.” 

This story is published under a partnership with The Food Section.

author image Contributor Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a James Beard award-winning newsletter covering food and drink across the American South. Raskin previously served as food editor and chief critic for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.

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