Appetites turned as a nasty argument about a price hike in a beloved stir-fry from a Tullamore restaurant played out on Liveline yesterday, with the owner telling one caller to "drop dead".
Around time Paschal O'Donoghue was in the middle of his Budget 2019 speech, having possibly already announced a hike in VAT in the tourism and services sector from 9% to 13.5%, Anne was on her way to her local to pick up her favourite takeaway - a stir fry, and a very good one at that.
Speaking on Liveline yesterday, she explained that once at Coffee Club in Tullamore, she noticed that the price of her meal had increased from €9.99 to €11.99. Asking the server on the till why this was the case, she was told it was due to the VAT hike.
Not thinking too much about it, she paid and headed home. "Then I realised afterwards that that's not being implemented until January, so I wondered if anybody else was passing it on to their customers prior to January", she told Joe Duffy.
She rang that evening on her way home and asked to speak to the server she'd spoken to earlier. "I heard in the background 'I'm not available'" so she explained to the girl who answered the phone what had happened and that as a matter of principle she wouldn't be eating there again.
Expressing concern that other restaurants could be prematurely increasing the price of their food, Anne called in to share her story.
Tom McNamara, the owner of the cafe and a long-time businessman in the Tullamore area, asserted that they didn't increase prices yesterday "because I didn't get home until six o'clock yesterday evening and it was at that stage I found out [about the Budget]".
He said he increased the price of the dish in May, but "depending on the combination of stir-fry you order, it can work out cheaper."
Anne is a regular customer and orders the same stir fry each time. She explained that her last visit was on 4 October and cost €9.99, which she checked on her bank statement. But this time, she said, she didn't order noodles with it and it was €11.99.
Tom said they have a system that charges more depending on how many variety of meats and vegetables you order, adding "it's kind of not in my control when I'm on the cash point". He had started to offer a refund to Anne on the air, but Joe interrupted to remind him that that was not what this discussion was about.
At this point, Tom became more combative, bristling at the suggestion that he was taking advantage of the budget to increase his prices ahead of time. Anne asserted that that was exactly the reason she was given in the restaurant when she asked about the price increase.
"Those are the words that you said to me", said Anne. "Well, those are the words I did not say, because I know what I said", said Tom.
All the same, Tom couldn't recall what he had said to her in the restaurant.
When asked whether this argument was "all over €2", Anne said that she was completely fine with paying a little extra money for her food, and that this was a "point of principle".
"Well, you know what you can do with your principle", Tom fired back.
"No, what can I do with it?" she asked. "Well, whatever you want."
Tom said that with very frequent customers there will often be a discount, as like many small businesses in smaller town, the staff knows most of the locals. "You have to look after your customers and it certainly wouldn't make sense to start overcharging my customers".
When asked if he remembered Anne, a regular customer, Tom said that he did not but that he was willing to "take it that she imagined what happened". He added that there must have been "some hallucinatory chemic[al] drug" in her stir fry because he "did not say those words".
When asked whether it was possible he could have mentioned the VAT increase as a throw-away comment, given the day that was in it, Tom replied "maybe if I was on some drug I might say something, too".
He then said that if Anne wanted her €2 back, she could have it, and if she didn't, she could "go to hell".
"I'm losing the will to live here over this", Tom said.
The discussion drew impassioned defenses for both sides, proving that far from being a petty argument, VAT hikes effect numerous people in varied ways and are always sensitive subjects.
One caller chimed with with support for Anne, saying she was herself in the service industry and that she was baffled at how Tom has lasted in the industry. "Drop dead", Tom replied.
Another stated that Tom's price increase would not lead to increased money in Tom's pocket and that the money is simply covering the tax hike, stating that he was "fully behind Tom on this one".
The conversation continued, with listeners calling in to defend Anne and criticise Tom's approach to one of his most loyal customers, with many comments made in support of small businesses who need a helping hand.
Certainly it is a point worth raising. Tom notes that many figures of authority enforce policies and changes believing that the economy in rural towns is the same as Dublin's economy - "flying again". In smaller towns more work has to be done to sustain any local business, something Tom knows well as a long-time businessman.
Still, suggesting a customer is on drugs is just bad taste.