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The 30-minute food cost audit

If you know what to look for, a quick tour through your restaurant can show you how to save a few more bucks on food costs.

When the P&L comes out and we're surprised that the food cost is out of line, it's often due to key issues such as vendor price increases, bad inventory controls, even pilferage. But what do you do when food cost comes in at budget? Does that mean food costs are under control?

Keep in mind that your food cost budget is likely padded to accommodate a difference between theoretical food cost (based on the recipe costing and budgeted prices) and the actual cost (what the P&L says). That padding generally covers errors and mistakes that happen in any operation. Our goal as managers is to reduce the padding. One of the easiest ways to do this is to undertake a simple 30-minute preemptive audit.

Your goal is to catch errors and mistakes before they make an impact on your bottom line—in essence, treating the root cause, rather than the symptoms. Here are a few key questions to ask yourself as you take your tour that might help you find a few additional dollars of food cost savings that you can drive to the bottom line.

First stop: The kitchen 

How frequently does your preparation staff use recipes?

Too often recipe cards can be found relegated to some beat up binder on an unreachable shelf in the chef's office. It's surprising how recipes evolve unintentionally over time when they are not driven by a written guide. Recipes are real tools with real benefits beyond cost accuracy. In most cases, the confidence inspired by following a well-written recipe will actually increase the speed with which it can be completed.

Whether the staff uses recipe cards or not, how do they actually measure quantities? In many cases, the staff may be fine with using recipes, but are there adequate supplies of measuring equipment, or are they simply guessing at quantities? Not supplying an adequate amount of measuring tools is a classic case of being penny wise and pound foolish—scales and measuring cups are inexpensive when compared to the ingredients they are used to measure. The accuracy, consistency and speed gained by having adequate quantities of measuring devices can easily pay for these items and allow more money to go to the bottom line.

Look in kitchen trash receptacles; what do you see?

Garbage cans can be the hiding ground for errors, and with them, a fair share of food cost. Looking at wasted foods may expose problems. But rather than placing blame on the staff, ask yourself, what did you do to prevent the mistake? Was it a system problem? Equipment failure? A training deficiency? The contents of a garbage can are a reflection on management.

What signs do you see of error control in action?

Items like bacon and nuts are high cost items that often are burnt and then trashed, directly impacting food costs. What signs do you see of your staff trying to avoid this common problem? Do they use the timers that are in the kitchen for these purposes, a timer that is incorporated into the standard operating procedure for cooking bacon, placed on the oven door to remind the cook to pull it before it burns? Setting a timer for certain items should be a part of the culture of your restaurant.

Second stop: The dining room 

How much do your servers care about food cost?

Not all the food cost issues happen in the kitchen. Looking to the area where servers are doing their set-ups can expose things that are set-up to save time yet cost the operation money. Pre-filling all the creamers to the same amount seems like a good idea, but if they are all filled to the same amount, a table of one gets a full creamer every single time and is costing as much as a table where four hot beverages are ordered. Butter portions should be scrutinized as well. And what happens to these set-ups at the end of the shift?

What systems are in place to track returned food orders?

While you might have a system to financially account for the value of a mistake that was served to a customer and returned, what does your system do to prevent that error from re-occurring?

Are returned orders coded into groupings that can be measured, tracked and analyzed to reduce their frequency?

Third stop: The warewashing room 

Have you asked the warewashing staff about your portion sizes?

You'd be surprised how much your warewashers know about what items on your menu are overportioned or come back uneaten for other reasons. Look at items such as sides, salad dressings, condiments, garnishes, etc. In this day of tight competition and high expectations for customer value, your portioning should be a key concern in menu planning. You should be just as concerned about how your plates look when they come back from the dining room as you are about how they look when they go out.

Last stop: Your office 

What did you learn, and what are you prepared to do?

It happens all the time. We see things we need to work on, but we simply don't get around to it. Your role in being preemptive about your food cost is to turn thought into action. Write down a list of items that caught your attention on your tour and paste it somewhere where you've got to look at it till you've resolved those issues.

How to contact the CIA 

The CIA's Continuing Education department features professional development programs, custom courses, conferences and consulting services—including new initiatives in menu research and development, flavor exploration, health and wellness and wines. For more information, please visit www.ciaprochef.com or call 1-800-888-7850.

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