And with that glass of iced tea, a heaping helping of sticker shock

Uhhhh, what’s the deal with the ever-escalating price of iced tea in restaurants? If you think the price of burgers or anything beef has gone through the roof, have you calculated the inflation rate for a glass of iced tea over the last year or so?

The same thing has happened with soft drinks — Coke, Pepsi, etc. — and at the rate things are going, we may end up paying more for the accompanying drink than for the entrée itself.

No wonder so many people are now ordering water with their meals. And how long will it be before restaurants start charging for plain old tap water (some fast food places already charge 50 cents for the paper cup if you ask for water)?

As food prices spiral ever upward — despite the government bean counters’ ongoing insistence that food inflation is negligible — restaurants have apparently latched onto drinks as a significant profit generator.

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The glass of iced tea that not long ago was 99 cents, tops, at most restaurants in this part of the world, has seen a meteoric rise: $1.19, $1.59, $1.99, then $2-plus, with seemingly no ceiling in sight.

On my last stop at Cracker Barrel, the faux southern cooking chain (which, much to my puzzlement, doesn’t offer that bedrock staple of southern cuisine, blackeyed peas), a glass of iced tea was $2.19. Only a short time ago, it was $1.99, and not that long ago, 99 cents. Cracker Barrel makes a big deal of the fact that the price includes “free refills.” But that’s only if you can manage to snag a server to ask for a refill — I’ve yet to have anyone refill my empty glass without my asking (if I could catch someone to ask).

At one of the nationally-franchised fern bar restaurants a week or so ago, the charge for iced tea was $2.69 (no refill offered), and at a Memphis restaurant recently, $3.19 (again, no refill offered). At that price, for a family of four, we’re talking right at 13 smackeroos before any food is even ordered.

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To add insult to injury, the iced tea, as often as not, is watered down and lukewarm because hot tea has been poured over the ice and melted it.

I can, by a stretch, grant that the ubiquitous cloyingly sweet tea, which I never drink, might be marginally more costly for a restaurant to make than the unsweetened tea I drink straight, but c’mon, $3.19 for something that cost, oh maybe, 25 cents tops?

All the more refreshing, then, a place like the always-crowded Wagon Wheel restaurant in Macon, Miss., where the farmer pickups gather, and you get a plate lunch piled high and lapping the sides, drink and tax included, and help yourself to tea refills. Nine bucks, drop a couple dollars in the tips jar, and pig out.

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