Like millions of others, my home was without power on Wednesday, Oct. 31, thanks to Hurricane Sandy.
We considered ourselves lucky. A lack of electricity-run luxuries was our only hardship. We had food in ice-filled coolers. We lacked heat, but we had hot water. And we had each other, and our family and friends were safe.
But after more than 48 hours without electricity or a husband (he’s a reporter for The Star-Ledger who was otherwise occupied with someone named Sandy), my three children and I wanted a change of scenery. We went across town to a friend’s house for a few hours.
Driving home, we saw lights in a local pizzeria.
“Open,” the light in the window beckoned.
Growing a little bored with my culinary creations on the propane-powered grill, we were eager for a change.
I asked the cashier what they were selling.
Generator-powered large pies or thin-crust versions, no toppings. $15 each.
I ordered one, and we waited with another 20 customers, basking in normalcy, warming up from the cold, savoring the delicious smells wafting from the ovens.
When it was ready, I paid cash and we ate.
And it was delicious. Nothing left but crumbs and a grease smudge or two.
Word must have gotten around, because dozens more customers came, bought pizza, and left in the time we were there.
We returned home, bellies full. Satisfied.
The next day, I wrote a story about storm scams: fake charities, contractor scams and price gouging.
I passed the pizzeria again that day, Thursday.
That’s when it hit me.
This consumer advocate didn’t realize it while she was chowing down, but in retrospect, I wondered if I was a victim of classic price gouging at the pizza joint.
Price gouging is common during natural disasters.
People looking to make a buck charge more than traditional prices for items, essentially taking advantage of those who need those goods — and would often pay anything — to get them.
It could be bottled water. Gasoline. Hotel rooms. And yes, even pizza.
By law, merchants can’t charge 10 percent over the normal price for an item during a declared state of emergency or for 30 days thereafter. If the merchant faces extra costs to deliver goods because of the emergency, it can’t charge more than 10 percent over the normal markup for the item. Violators face civil penalties of up to $10,000 for the first offense and $20,000 for subsequent offenses.
I rifled through the take-out menus in my kitchen, and I found one for the pizzeria, which was probably about six months old. The listed price for both a large pie and the thin-crust variety was $11.95.
That meant I paid a markup of $3.05 per pie — well above the 10 percent markup allowed by law.
So on Friday, I went shopping with new eyes.
My local gas station charged the posted price when I filled my tank. The supermarket charged the correct amount for my purchases. I called some friends in the neighborhood, and no one had experienced elevated prices.
I decided to return to the pizza shop. It was dinnertime and as the skies darkened, the “open” sign glowed.
I parked my minivan, packed again with my three kids, in a stall across from the store. There were plenty of customers going in and out with their pizza.
When a man and woman in their 20s left the shop empty handed, I introduced myself and asked about the prices they paid. Four slices at $3 per slice. The couple, who didn’t want to share their names, said they were not offered a receipt.
I next spoke to a 60-something gentleman who left with a steaming pizza box.
Like me, he paid $15 for the pie. I explained the price issue.
“Yes, but I don’t have a choice,” he said, and he declined to give his name.
A 30ish woman left the shop with a pizza, and she joined her husband and two young kids in their minivan.
“But we’re hungry,” she said when the price gouging question was explained.
Then I approached a woman and her adult daughter, who seemed personally insulted that I even asked the price gouging question.
“They’re a neighborhood pizza place,” she said. “They have to run a generator. I don’t have a problem with it.”
When I said that the generator cost probably didn’t add that much to the cost of each pizza, and that by overcharging, this “neighborhood pizza place” could be taking advantage of its neighbors, she waved her hand dismissively and got into her car.
It was time to speak to the owner. Half a dozen people were behind the counter, but the owner wasn’t there. I left my name and number, and I left the store.
Outside again by my kid-filled minivan, I saw another customer emerge with three pies in hand.
This customer said aside from having no power for more than three days, his home was spared in the storm. Since Sandy, he said, neighbors had been very generous with their generator power and by sharing meals.
It was his turn to give a little back.
The cost was $45 — more than $9 above the pre-hurricane price based on my at-home take-out menu.
“It’s a little bit of comfort food, and I guess it’s not much the grand scheme of things,” he said. “It’s a little bit of normalcy.”
So yes, dear readers, is a couple of extra bucks worth it for a hot pizza when you have none? Maybe.
But it’s also against the law.
I was convinced that this shop owner was overcharging at a time when a community was in need. He shouldn’t give pizza away for free, but simply charge a fair price.
Was I being stickler for the rules? For a law that’s meant to protect consumers?
Heck, yes. That’s my job.
Then the owner called me back, and now I’m not sure what to think.
He said his regular supplier wasn’t offering goods during this time, so he had to look elsewhere.
“My flour, my cheese, and more, it’s up more than 25 percent,” he said. “I don’t overcharge.”
He also said he’s been giving free pizza to local police, fire and other emergency and public workers. That’s admirable, but it doesn’t address what he may or may not be charging regular customers.
I asked what the regular price was for a single slice. He said it was $2.25. I said I was told he was charging $3 per slice — more than a 10 percent rise in cost.
“We usually cut eight slices, but since the storm it’s been six slices to a pie — they’re getting bigger slices,” he said.
This was no longer black and white, but shades of grey.
If a merchant’s costs go up during an emergency, prices can go up, too. This case is obviously not a simple one. The owner offered to show me his receipts for suppliers to prove his costs went up.
I admit I’m not equipped to determine exactly how much the per-pie cost really may have risen for this businessman.
So exactly how do the experts —Consumer Affairs’ investigators — deal with price gouging complaints that are in the questionable category?
“For each of our investigations, the Division is issuing a subpoena for sales receipts and records from before and after the state of emergency, as well as documentation of the costs faced by the merchant,” said a spokesman from Consumer Affairs.
The agency is directing its investigators — some of whom remain without power and face flooding in their homes — to focus on cases in which there have been numerous complaints about price gouging “that appear to be the most egregious and abusive to those in desperate need.”
Pizza isn’t the most important issue out there, but the law is the law.
Even if you’re not sure of price gouging, but you suspect it, Consumer Affairs wants to know. File a complaint at 800-242-5846.