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David Brooks, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, made a juicy claim about the economy in a social media post about his airport lunch.
"This meal just cost me $78 at Newark Airport," Brooks wrote on X the night of Sept. 20. "This is why Americans think the economy is terrible." He posted a photo of what appeared to be a burger, crinkle-cut fries, lettuce and tomato, ketchup packets and an amber beverage over ice.
Brooks’ post identified neither the airport restaurant where he purchased his meal, nor what he ate or drank. But his post took flight across the internet: On X, some of the people in his 18,000 replies speculated that he ordered whiskey or another alcohol that drove up the tab.
It is possible that Brooks’ tabs cost $78, but we feel safe in saying that it is not the typical price of airport burgers, fries and a drink. We tried to reach Brooks and The New York Times (in case this was a work-expensed meal) to ask what he ordered and where. We did not get a reply.
Brooks’ social media post inspired readers to go in search of meal prices at the Newark airport.
A context note attached to Brooks’ post (which disappeared by late afternoon) tied the meal to 1911 Smoke House in Terminal A based on the "table, glass, chair, sheet and cut of fries."
Maurice Hallett, the owner of 1911 Smoke House, which opened a location at the airport several months ago, told us it looked like Brooks’ meal was from his restaurant.
"A cheeseburger with fries is $17.76 before tax. A double shot of whiskey is $22," he said. Were that the order, the total meal cost would come to $39.76. Add in 6.625% sales tax, $2.63, and a 20% tip, and the total bill might come to around $50. Theoretically, if one added one more double shot of whiskey and a tip of 18%, the bill could come to $77.70.
The restaurant poked back at Brooks on Facebook, suggesting the drink tab was much of the bill. Hallett posted a "D Brooks special," which includes a "super delicious burger with fries and a double shot of whiskey" with the price of $78 crossed out and showing a price of $17.78. (That special is not available at his airport location, Hallett told us, but it is available at his spot in Trenton.)
WPST, a Trenton, New Jersey, radio station, reported that the restaurant is the largest one in Terminal A.
We searched Newark airport’s website for burgers and found multiple options including BurgerFi and Shake Shack in Terminal A, but we could not find the airport menus with prices for those chains and did not hear back from their corporate PR offices. A spokesperson for the Port Authority said that it’s unlikely a passenger in Terminal A would take the AirTrain to Terminal B to eat. "They could — how many people actually do that?" Port Authority spokesperson Cheryl Albiez said.
But to gain a more complete picture of burger prices at the airport, we perused menus we found on Newark Airport’s Terminal B website for multiple restaurants. We found loads of options well under $78:
Belgian Beer Cafe: The Wagyu beef burger costs $19.99 and Belgian frites cost $11.99. The cost for bourbon, whiskey and other liquor was not listed however the cost of beer ranged from about $8 to $14.
Budweiser Brewhouse: The most expensive burgers were $18.99 for the "Budweiser Brewhouse burger" with Goose Island Beer cheese, smoked brisket, bacon, onion rings, lettuce, tomato, red onion, spicy ketchup or the "Goose Island honker" with Swiss cheese, sauteed onions and portobello mushrooms, lettuce, tomato, red onion, Honker’s Ale mustard. Those burgers are served with house-made chips for $2.99 or fries for $3.19. Drinks were not listed.
Malone’s Fish Market: Classic burger costs $19.99. Add Old Bay fries for $3.99. Drinks were not listed.
Smashburger: Burgers are generally up to $12.25 and fries run up to $5, a media relations staffer told us. (We looked at an updated menu than the one found on Terminal B’s website.)
The Port Authority has a policy known as "street pricing" that is intended to keep down costs of food and drinks at the airport.
In 2021, a man posted on X a menu showing beer prices at New York’s LaGuardia Airport up to nearly $28 for a Sam Adams Summer Ale Draught. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey conducted a price audit and found customers were charged "totally indefensible amounts of $23 or $27" for a beer. The Port Authority said that the prices were in violation of their "street pricing" policy which caps concession prices for food or drink at no more than 10% above what they charge at similar businesses at non airport locations. That policy remains in effect.
Inflation is down by about two-thirds from its peak in summer 2022, and it currently measures just over 3% compared with prices one year earlier.
People often extrapolate from their personal experience to make an assessment of the economy, Dean Baker, senior economist at the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, told PolitiFact.
However, "airport meal prices are not going to be a good metric of how people feel about the economy," Baker said. "Most people fly rarely and when they do, they know that airport restaurants tend to be overpriced, so they try to avoid buying much food at the airport."
PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article.
New York Times’ David Brooks, Tweet, Sept. 20, 2023
NJ.com, New York Times columnist goes viral with $78 Newark Airport meal complaint, Sept. 21, 2023
The Big Lead, New York Times Columnist David Brooks' $78 Airport Meal Is Remarkable, Sept. 21, 2023
1911 Smoke House Barbeque, Facebook post, Sept. 21, 2023
1911 Smoke House Barbeque, Facebook post, Sept. 21, 2023
Newark Airport Terminal B, Accessed Sept. 21, 2023
Newark Airport, Map, Accessed Sept. 21, 2023
WPST, Trenton, NJ Restaurant Expands to New Terminal at Newark Liberty Airport, Jan. 13, 2023
Port Authority, Press release about "street pricing," May 12, 2022
PolitiFact, Joe Biden is mostly right that the US inflation rate is the lowest among other leading economies, Sept. 1, 2023
Telephone interview, Port Authority spokesperson Cheryl Albiez, Sept. 21, 2023
Email interview, Brittany Noe, account supervisor Havas Formula (Smashburger), Sept. 21, 2023
Email interview, Maurice Hallett, owner of 1911 Smoke House Barbeque, Sept. 21, 2023
Email interview Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Sept. 21, 2023