Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in February 2017 and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
As a restaurant owner, you have a lot of expenses on your plate every month that a partner like Xendoo can help you manage, such as providing tax tips for restaurants. Like rent and insurance, many of those are fixed and are beyond your control except when it’s time to renegotiate those agreements. But others are variable and are within your power on a day-to-day basis. By far, the two most significant of these variable expenses are food and labor, and there are things you can do to minimize both without sacrificing customer service or menu quality. Labor is relatively straightforward, but food costs can often be an elusive target for new restaurateurs. Let’s take a look at some things that you can do to reduce food costs and increase your bottom line.
What Is Food Cost?
Put simply, your food cost is the ratio of what you spend on groceries to your front-of-house sales and is almost always expressed as a percentage. For example, if you have a good restaurant bookkeeping system in place and know that your monthly Sysco invoices are $30,000 and your sales for the month are $100,000, your food cost for that month is 30%. Of course, lower is always better when it comes to ways to reduce food costs, but 30% is the generally accepted ideal for most restaurants.
Reduce Food Costs: Know Your Plates
There is a science to menu planning, and it involves a lot more than just deciding what dishes you are good at preparing. First, you need to know exactly the cost of ingredients for each dish you offer on your menu, which is often called the “plate cost.” Calculating your plate cost can seem complex at first glance, but it’s fairly simple once you get the hang of it. Before you can calculate anything, you need to be sure you have standardized recipes with clearly defined units of measurement and quantities.
Make a list of each ingredient in the dish and do the same calculation for each one. You need to know the unit of measurement your supplier uses (the purchase unit), what your supplier charges you for it (the unit purchase cost), and the yield. Yield will only apply to some items that require trimming or peeling (like meat or potatoes) before they can be used, resulting in some waste that needs to be calculated into your cost. Standardized yield charts are available from most vendors. These three numbers will give you your actual unit price for the ingredient.
Menu Engineering: Putting it all together
Next, think about how you prepare your dish and define the unit of measurement called for in your recipe (the serving unit). Next, figure out how your serving unit relates to your purchase unit and calculate your serving unit cost. For example, if you buy ketchup by the pound and serve it by the ounce, you would divide your purchase unit cost by 16 to get the price per ounce. Lastly, define the quantity of serving units in the recipe (portion size).
That may sound like a lot of numbers, but you can calculate your plate cost with these numbers in hand. Let’s take the example of a side order of french fries. You buy Russet potatoes for $2 per pound, and let’s assume four potatoes to the pound. After peeling, you have 19% waste (an 81% yield). Your recipe calls for 8oz of potatoes on the order, so it’s easy to calculate the plate cost from there. At $2 per pound with 81% yield, your actual cost per usable pound is $2.47. Divide that by 16 to get the price per ounce ($0.15) and multiply by 8oz called for in your recipe to get your plate cost of $1.20 for an order of fries. Sticking to the 30% food cost rule, you should be pricing this menu item at no less than $4.00.
Menu Engineering: Reuse Ingredients
Mexican restaurants are often cited as one of the most profitable restaurant categories. One of the key reasons is the relatively small number of common ingredients used in most menu items. Think about it: how many things on a Mexican menu can you make with some ground beef, chicken, tortillas, cheese, beans, and rice? A lot. Having common ingredients among dishes means you don’t have a lot of different items sitting around on the shelf not being used if a particular dish isn’t selling well. Avoid menu items that call for ingredients—especially expensive ones—that are unused in any other dish.
Take Regular Inventory
A good, detailed inventory taken regularly is important in figuring out how to reduce food costs because you need to know which items are running high and whether you might have food walking out the back door at night. No one likes to think that someone on the staff might be stealing, but the sad reality in the restaurant business is that theft does happen. Therefore, always have the inventory conducted and signed off by at least two people to reduce the inventory shrinkage. Other reasons for an item running high may be poor preparation resulting in unnecessary waste or spoilage from incorrect rotation.
Compare Foodservice Vendors Regularly
You have several options for foodservice vendors, and just because you’ve chosen one doesn’t mean you have to stay with your current choice. The vendor that had the best pricing a year ago, or even six months ago, may not have the best prices today. Food prices fluctuate based on market supply and demand, and vendors often try to entice new clients with low introductory pricing that they can’t maintain for long. So be sure that you’re shopping your options regularly to keep them honest.
Check-In Your Food Truck
When your truck comes in, be sure that someone checks off each item on the invoice and verifies the correct quantity before the driver leaves. Foodservice vendors will often run out of stock in the warehouse and either make substitutions or omit back-ordered items. Be sure that your rep knows what substitutions are and aren’t acceptable and what items are critical for your business. You should receive a credit for any back-ordered items, but sometimes the vendor might make an oversight, or the driver might simply make a mistake unloading the order. You can’t afford to pay for food you never receive, right?
First In, First Out
One of the most common reasons for spoilage is the lack of proper rotation on the shelf. When the food truck comes in, ensure that the person putting it away understands that new items always go in the back and older items get rotated to the front. It’s often tempting when things get busy to stick the new inventory in the front where it’s most convenient. A periodic spot check of expiration dates will usually reveal whether your team is rotating items properly.
Prevent Cross-Contamination and Spoilage
The way you store perishable items can sometimes affect their shelf life. Be sure that your cooler is set at the recommended temperature (28-32° for fresh meats) and that items in the cooler are correctly stored to prevent cross-contamination of microorganisms that can lead to early spoilage or even sickness. In addition, be sure that raw meats, poultry, and seafood are placed on bottom shelves to prevent meat juices from dripping onto other foods and causing contamination.
Run Daily Specials
Daily specials are a great way to offer a tasty variety to your customers and get rid of that extra inventory lingering in the pantry a little longer than it should. Train the front-of-house staff to sell the specials effectively and promote them on social media. If you offer a buffet, that’s also a great way to reduce food costs while keeping your customers happy.
Food cost will always be one of the challenges of the restaurant business, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Using these tips, you can help keep your food cost under control and tame one of the biggest variables to your profit margin. If you are already close to the ideal food cost of 30%, congratulations, you’re ahead of the curve. But if not, you now have the tools to figure out where your grocery money is going and make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. Xendoo is here to help, so be sure to reach out and discover the full suite of services that Xendoo offers to restaurant owners just like you.