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Let’s face it: restaurant work is labor intensive. The terms hospitality and service typically include people in their definition. Although many other industries have spent considerable time determining how to automate non-skilled and skilled tasks, it would be hard to imagine or even accept a restaurant without the interaction of people and the creativity that comes from many hands in the kitchen. That being said, it is labor cost that becomes most troubling for chefs and restaurateurs to manage. Here are some of the facts:

• There is no carry-over value with labor. In other words, unlike food, labor time today cannot be put on the shelf and reused tomorrow. Once labor hours are expended they are gone and must be paid for regardless of sales.
• With labor you are dealing with the emotions, highs and lows, and attitudes of individuals. All of these factors are fairly unpredictable. To say that one style of management or one management action will work on all individuals would be absurd. It doesn’t work that way. Thus the time and energy utilized to manage others is quite extraordinary.
• In most cases there is a range of performance with individual employees that offers an area of peak efficiency and value. If there is not enough business to bring an employee to a point of peak value then the cost of delivery is impacted negatively. If there is too much business and the employee is pushed beyond efficiency then oftentimes the quality of product or service is negatively impacted. It is a fine line that must be anticipated and managed.
• Employees need and crave constant training. To not invest in them can lead to apathy or departure. Re-training new employees is very expensive both directly and indirectly in guest satisfaction.
• The nature of the business is that every day provides peaks and valleys in business and demands so it would be difficult for anyone doing time studies to build a model of efficiency that could be constant.

So what are the solutions? As a chef I am always concerned with the product produced for guests. I want to make sure that the restaurant uses the best quality ingredients, handles those products correctly, dedicates the time to proper technique, and plates the food as beautiful, flavorful, finished menu items. All of this takes time and varying levels of expertise to produce. Yet, have we analyzed what skill sets are best applied along the way?

Does it make sense for your higher paid line cooks to spend time chopping and dicing vegetables, trimming garnishes, portioning proteins, making soups and stocks? Does it make sense for those same higher priced employees to accrue overtime every week because they are investing part of their day in this important, yet less skilled work? Overtime kills a restaurant operation and does little to help employees remain fresh and on their game.

I have never been an advocate for a forty-hour work-week in kitchens, but excessive overtime leads to a deletion of morale, a lack of consistency, mistakes and accidents. I would suggest the following as a start:

*Every restaurant should incorporate a commissary shift with those cooks who have the foundations but are still building their skill sets. These cooks would be responsible for the majority of mise en place from vegetable prep to stocks, soups and bases for sauce work. The role of the higher paid line cooks would be to bring the flavors together with finish cooking, organize their work area to ensure a smooth service and plate dishes with the care of an artist to impact the WOW factor when guests receive their food. This small change (if you are not already doing so) would have an impact on cost of labor, smooth operation of the kitchen, consistent presentation of menu items, happier more focused employees and satisfied guests.

Additionally, where feasible and when product quality is not impacted, restaurants should consider those available ingredients that have been packaged to save labor without sacrificing the integrity of what you need to offer. This will require the chef to have an open mind, request ingredient tastings from vendors and establish purchasing specs around these labor saving ingredients.

Finally, the menu drives the need for labor. The menu in any restaurant should not be designed solely from the flavor profile that the operation is seeking to deliver, nor just from guest requests. The menu is a reflection of the restaurants business savvy. What labor time and level of expertise is required to produce this dish? This should be a question that is always asked during the menu planning process.

Business decisions in successful restaurants need to be made. The emotion of modifying staff schedules and occasionally terminating staff because of their impact on restaurant finances is never easy and likely the hardest job that a manager faces, yet your responsibility is to the business as a whole. Planning efficiencies into the operation so that these unpleasant tasks can be avoided is always the best rule of thumb.