Now that I have your attention and you are back in your chair, let me explain.  The margins are very tight, in fact they are so tight that most business savvy people would wonder why anyone would ever want to own a restaurant.  The cost of raw materials seems to always go up, most ingredients that restaurants use are highly perishable, customer volume is less predictable than we would like, seasonal differences in quality are quite significant, the supply chain is out of step with demand, and waste seems to be a real problem in many operations.  The buck seems to always stop with the chef; it’s the chef’s kitchen, the chef’s food cost, and the chef’s menu that drives marginal profit at best.  So, if the cost of goods is not the chef’s responsibility, then where does the buck stop?

The answer is simple, yet profoundly challenging:  food cost is EVERYONE’S responsibility.  From the dishwasher to the prep cook, line cook to sous chef, and server to restaurant manager – food cost percentages must be something that everyone takes on as a job requirement.  Until this is universally accepted and embraced, a restaurant is unlikely to meet its obligation for financial success.

Let’s look at how this works:


Whether the chef or another assigned individual is responsible, buying ingredients is not simply a case of calling your purveyor and stating what you need.  Smart buying involves purchasing fresh ingredients when they are in season and keeping them off menus when they are not.  Smart buying means to look at quantity discounts when available, buying generic brands when quality still meets your standards, and shopping several vendors with quality and price in mind. Smart buying is a key to cost control.


Cost control begins at the back door. If it is sold by weight, then weigh it when it arrives.  If it is sold by count, then count when it arrives.  Check for quality and expiration dates, make sure that storage in transit was handled properly and match the product to your specifications to ensure that it is consistent. Proper receiving equals good cost control.


First in, first out.  Make sure that cooler temperatures are appropriate for the products stored.  Fresh fish on ice with proper drainage, produce cleaned and transferred to Lexan containers with proper labeling and dating.  Part of cost control is to maximize freshness and longevity.  Waste control is cost control.


One of the easiest and most effective ways of maintaining freshness and shelf-life is to immediately label and date products on receipt and do the same for products once they are prepped or cooked and stored.  Waste and quality control is cost control.


Practicing proper cooking methods is another way of ensuring consistent quality and cost.  In the end, the purpose of the ingredients you buy is ultimately to translate into sales.  Consistent quality through proper cooking will translate into satisfied guests and return business.  Implementing proper cooking methods is a form of cost control.

[]       RECIPES

Although recipes are not foolproof, they are effective guides that lead to consistent quality and consistent, predictable cost.  When you know what the cost of a menu item truly is then you are able to build proper selling prices that lead to profitability.  Recipes are a significant piece of the cost control puzzle.


Try requiring your cooks to keep a Lexan container at their workstation for any “waste” that they generate in production.  Monitor it and discuss ways that they might minimize their production waste, how much that waste impacts on cost and profitability, and why perceived waste is a driver of business failure.  Also, as a friend of mine once suggested:  buy smaller garbage cans as a way of discouraging wasteful practices in the kitchen. 


Build in standard operating procedures that are focused on cost control.  Train to these standards and manage them.  As an example, vegetable peelings can be standardized as a component for broth flavoring instead of cut mire poix, and meat trim can be incorporated in staff meat through creative recipe development.  Used coffee grounds can be worked into the herb garden soil mix, lobster and shrimp shells can become a base for fumet for seafood sauces, unused dining room bread and rolls can be dried for breadcrumbs.  Standards become habits, and good habits are a start in the right direction for cost control.


Watch returning plates from the dining room to help assess the reaction to new menu items and the size of portions.  Sometimes guests do not point to your misses – they just don’t return if they are unhappy or if they feel that portions are excessive.  Understanding guest reactions will help to manage sales and in turn reflect on cost control.


The size wars in restaurants are a no-win game.  To some operators there is a feeling that value is directly related to how large the portions are, but value is connected to the experience associated with ordering and consuming a menu item.  Out of control portions leave little room for profitability when price ceilings are always a concern.  Quality and the experience of consuming a dish are significant cost control factors.


When a chef plans a menu, it is important to build in ways for total use of raw materials.  A menu can appear larger by simply factoring in multiple ways of using every part of ingredients.  Menu planning leads to better cost control.


The top line drives the bottom line.  Part of the process of cost control lies in the hands of servers who understand that part of their job is to sell.  When done properly, upselling appetizers, desserts, and even different, more profitable menu items, lead to better control of waste, cost, and the guest dining experience. Your servers hold the key to profitability and cost control.


Part of your job as a chef or restaurateur is to “see” what is going on.  Solid cost control begins and ends with your ability to understand and manage all of the measures listed above.  This is an “every-minute” task that defines success and profitability.  Every employee must be involved in this process – not just management.  As managers your primary method of cost control is to train and manage others to be your eyes and cost management implementors.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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