The Puzzling Math Behind $16 Muffins

Explaining the DOJ's exorbitant costs on baked goods

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A federal auditor shocked the baked goods world Wednesday with the revelation that the Justice Department has been spending $16 per muffin at the conferences it hosts. The steep sticker price on a bakery item consisting of flour, baking soda, eggs and maybe a few blueberries certainly stunned bloggers and politicians alike. "The Justice Department appears to be blind to the economic realities our country is facing," complained Republican Senator Charles Grassley. In a letter to the U.S. Attorney General, Congressman Frank Wolf added "It is clear that while American taxpayers were tightening their belts and making difficult financial decisions, the department was splurging on wasteful snacks." So just how does a single muffin end up costing $16?

The audit by the Office of the Inspector General notes that the $16 muffins were served at a legal training conference in Washington in 2009. But the 148 page report does not detail where the muffins were purchased. Managers we spoke with at upscale bakeries in DC couldn't fathom a $16 muffin. "Unless it's made out of gold, I don't know why it would cost that much," said Tanya Wilson, manager at Baked and Wired in Georgetown.  "I'm not sure where in DC they would get that," added Gabby Campbell, a manager at Georgetown Cupcake.

To give the Justice Department the benefit of the doubt, let's look at muffin prices in one of the country's most expensive cities, New York. In a Serious Eats survey of the best muffin across all five boroughs, the most expensive one they could find was $3.75 blueberry-polenta muffin available at Locanda Verde in Manhattan. It's pictured to the right. Still, that brings us nowhere close to $16.

Looking closer at the audit, page 50 may offer a clue as to how these muffins could've become so expensive, though it's not at all satisfying:

So there's our best guess. While the local DC market certainly doesn't seem to offer any luxury muffins at the scale of $16, "service charges, local sales taxes, and indirect costs" may have brought it over the edge—somehow. Still, if anyone remains angry about the high-flying government workers enjoying decadent $16 muffins, Conor Dugan, a former Justice Department attorney now at Bancroft PLLC says you didn't miss out on much. "They certainly didn't have any of that good stuff at anything I was at. Or if they did, it was overpriced crap," he tells The Atlantic Wire. "I remember crappy wraps and small sandwiches and pop. Nothing extravagant."

Update: A reader wisely points out the role the hotel may have played in the $16 muffins. He sends via e-mail:

What would an upscale hotel in a large U.S. city charge to provide snacks and meals to conference attendees?  I try to avoid upscale hotels, but on the few occasions I have stayed at one I was staggered by the prices on the room service menu – to which a service charge is added by the hotel, plus taxes.  (Cities are notorious for high taxes on local hotels and other entertainment venues, apparently figuring that they can gouge out-of-town visitors who do not vote locally.)  So taxes could be considerably higher in this case than one might expect.  And, gratuities are expected in such a situation.

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