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Costing buffets guidelines

Question:

What are some good general guidelines to use for costing out buffets? What are some strategies to use when trying to determine your cost per customer on a buffet?

– Josh Rector, Food Services of America, Scottsdale, AZ

Answer:

Most restaurant costing advice considers cost per a la carte item. For example, calculating the cost of beef patty, bun, lettuce, tomato and French fries will indicate the total cost of a hamburger entrée on your menu. From there it is relatively easy to be sure the item is appropriately priced to meet target food costs and you can adjust the costs (portion, brand, quality specification) or menu price as needed. Things are tidy in this scenario, which is why culinary and hospitality educators like me teach a la carte costing.

When it comes to a buffet, costing is much messier. You may be cooking and serving food that isn’t eaten, and some guests may only eat a dollar or two of food while others will probably eat more in food cost than they have paid for the buffet.

The key to remember with buffet costing is if it is served (meaning held on the buffet) it is a cost, whether it is eaten, held for hours and discarded, or taken on a guest’s plate and later discarded. To have the best handle on your buffet costs:

  1. Know the tare (empty) weight of all of your hotel pans and platters. Over the course of a meal service, to start, calculate the amount of food served by weighing each item as it leaves the kitchen and subtracting the tare.
  2. Use a software program or costing template to calculate the actual food cost of every item leaving the kitchen based on the recipes. This is extremely tedious at first but is a great project for an intern! The total cost for your buffet is the sum of all of these items minus any item that can be SAFELY repurposed. For example, the cost of a carved melon centerpiece that can be used for two days can be divided among each meal.
  3. Divide the total cost of your buffet by the number of covers (paying guests). This will yield the average cost per guest so that you can be sure you are pricing intelligently.

There are many shortcuts to this type of meticulous costing—from estimating what each diner will eat to eyeballing—but the only sure way to know the cost is to invest the time and do the math. Once you have some baseline costs, you can spot check periodically, paying special attention to high cost items.

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