This is the most important question for operators or would be operators of restaurants. This is the defining question that separates those who will be successful vs. those who are destined to fail. Unfortunately, far too many in the restaurant business never ask this question, nor do they respond to the signs of failure until it is too late.
I have wrestled with this question for years and in my current role as a consultant am faced with delivering the answer(s) to properties who are waking up to a realization that it is very difficult to realize a profit even in the busiest operations. When I step back and look for cause and effect it appears to me that the answer to this question lies in the mindset of the restaurateur and chef. Does the operator have a mindset of a solid business manager or is he or she totally focused on being a part of the creative venture that a restaurant can become. There is a middle ground, but without business acumen, the restaurant will struggle. The following examples point to the yin and yang of building the right mindset balance:
*Are you content with creating a restaurant based on positive cash flow or are you working to build a long-term, sound business?
Many restaurants fall into the trap of believing that they are successful when cash is coming in faster than it is going out. This works well until there is a dip in business or unexpected expenses come knocking on your door. The illusion that success is simply based on a steady flow of customers has clouded the vision of many restaurateurs. Yes, you are busy, but are you really profitable?
*The opposite can also be true. The restaurant has incorporated excellent cost controls including portioning, inventory controls, focused buying, and time management, but fails to recognize that the top line DOES drive the bottom line.
Restaurant seats that are empty are way too costly. The combination of cash flow and cost control is necessary for the “business” to succeed.
*Menu, menu, menu. Is your menu a reflection of the egocentric need to offer the most expensive ingredients? Kobe beef hamburgers – really? Shaved truffles on your hand cut ravioli filled with fresh mozzarella imported from a small village in Northern Italy where the animals are hand fed a mixture of grass and grains from meadows that are above 2,000 feet and have exposure to the sun for 11 hours a day. You have seen the hype that is associated with building an image of restaurant importance. The questions are twofold: is this really a reflection of talent and is this in any way profitable?
*Does great food require the most expensive ingredients? Incredible cooks, and ones that can assist the business in making a profit are able to coax extraordinary flavors from less expensive ingredients. The prices they charge reflect the quality of the experience and the desired profitability of the menu item. Hold onto the truffles for the rare price fixe wine dinner and start looking at ways to build flavors from those chicken thighs. Try making some exceptional mozzarella in-house and market that as a calling card. There is greater talent in making your own vs. simply ordering ingredients on-line.
*Do you take ingredient shelf life seriously?
Waste can kill a restaurant business. Are you monitoring your inventory, ensuring that temperatures are ideal for specific ingredients, rotation of product is taking place, and order amounts are monitored closely to maximize usage? Is your menu flexible enough to accommodate the ingredient shelf-life cycle? How large are your garbage or compost cans? Does someone on your staff monitor production to minimize ingredient miss-use?
Stocks may require specific proportions of ingredients to develop consistent flavors, but broths are much more adaptable. Don’t throw out those carrot or onion peels; work them into a broth as a basis for featured soups or braising liquids. Those lobster shells make a great fumet or lobster butter.
*Measure, measure, measure. Use a scale! This is a business of pennies and your proteins, in particular, must be scaled out to protect the small amount of profit that you might realize from every menu item.
Watch what comes back on plates from the dining room. Consistent unfinished meals either means guest dissatisfaction or portions that are too large. It is always better for the experience and the business to have multiple complementary flavors on a plate than to simply overwhelm a guest with portion size. No one needs that 16- ounce steak. Portion control is a foundation of profitability.
*Know what it costs to make a cup of coffee. Coffee is a perfect example of how we can let costs get away from us. On the surface it may be a few pennies to make even the best cup of coffee, but are you factoring in what your staff consumes, waste, refills, etc. Business people know what their products cost to deliver, including all of the variables. Yield management is your job. Is that rib roast really $4.25 per pound? What about trim, cooler shrinkage, roasting shrinkage and slicing waste? You might discover that the roast plate cost is actually 30-35% higher than the cost at purchase.
*There is no such thing as a free lunch. Allow me to repeat again – this is a business of pennies. Do not give anything away for free. Your friends who expect a deal in your restaurant are not really your friends. Account for everything. If your restaurant makes donations then monitor them and categorize them as advertising and public relations. Make sure that you then promote your generosity so that it may have an impact on future business. If you provide a meal for your employees make sure that you track it and categorize this as an employee benefit. At the end of the month or year, print the cost of this and show your employees what that means to them in real dollars of value. Get credit for what you do – this is good business.
*Finally, charge what you need to charge. Restaurant prices cannot be negotiable. Once a price is set for a ‘la carte or banquet menus, do not waiver. You cannot afford to lower your prices. Offer your guests plenty of choice but do not sacrifice profitability. If there is too much resistance to an items price then change the menu item.
Making the decision to have a business mindset without sacrificing your commitment to quality is the only combination that works. A restaurant that is not profitable serves no one. Make a decision this year to be in the business of profitability. This one decision will serve your employees, your customers, your investors and you for the long run.