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Cross-utilization eases scramble for space

It’s a never-ending operational tug-of-war: Customers demand menu variety but ops can cram only so many ingredients into storage and makeline spaces before it nets chaos and waste. One timeless but increasingly practiced solution is cross-utilizing ingredients across multiple menus and dayparts—something especially top-of-mind with the surging popularity of breakfast. Where concepts like Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Subway built their brands during P.M. hours, breakfast is the new weapon of choice as those concepts grapple for sunrise sales.

No segment fights the pull for variety against the push of space constraints more than quick-service, but as Subway is proving, the battle is winnable. When the 36,400-unit, Milford, Conn.-based chain rolled breakfast systemwide two years ago, the adjustment was “extremely difficult,” says Chris Martone, its corporate executive chef. “Our average store is 1,200 square feet … but they go down to 600 and 200 square feet. So there’s always a fight for space.”

Cross-utilizing to make room for Subway breakfast began with low-hanging fruit such as cheeses, onions, tomatoes, peppers, bacon, ham and steak—all of which land on its sandwiches. But the squeeze was on to add egg white patties, yogurt, breakfast sausage, fruit and the like.

To accommodate both, crews set up the makeline almost as usual, since Subways offer their sandwich menu all day. But whereas crews might double up on certain sandwich ingredients for lunch, only half that amount is readied in the a.m., leaving wiggle room for breakfast ingredients.

Any time Martone creates new items, he does so with cross-utilization in mind. “We work from within our existing inventory first. Unless we have several applications for an ingredient, we rarely consider it. Breakfast sausage is the only exception I can think of.”

Casual restaurants face similar struggles with relocating new ingredients. In its recent menu revamp, First Watch, a 93-unit Sarasota, Fla.-based breakfast concept, added 15 new dishes that call for some unique ingredients. Yet the makeline wasn’t reconfigured to accommodate them.

“We make sure our cook line doesn’t change … because that’s so crucial to us getting the food out in 10 minute or less,” says Chris Tomasso, chief marketing officer for First Watch.

Still, cooks had to squeeze in new SKUs such as herbed goat cheese, pesto mayonnaise and house-roasted vegetables and use them across multiple omelets, salads and sandwiches. “When we find new ingredients, we use ones that fit our system; we don’t make the system fit something new,” notes Tomasso.

Nancy Levandowski just hopes to make things fit—and then cross-utilize them. The director of dining at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, has to manage some 10,000 SKUs used to hush the hunger pangs of the school’s 29,000 students. Relying heavily on ingredient management software, Levandowski consults with her culinary team to plan quarterly menus based on what’s already in the school’s food warehouse.

“Let’s say I want to cross-utilize all the strawberries we bring in, I have to look at every type we’re using—some fresh, some IQF, some in syrup—using that software to show every place where those are used,” Levandowski says. “Then I have to ask my staff, ‘Can you use this product instead and get rid of that?’”

Non-perishables such as breakfast cereals see multiple uses if Levandowski adds them to her inventory. From those come desserts and quick bite items sold at campus retail locations. They’re also used as ingredient supplements for savory items. “With every ingredient we ask, ‘What impact can it have elsewhere?’”

Smart, to be sure, but as consultant Dennis Lombardi warns, cross-utilization works insofar as it doesn’t complicate the labor picture. Any gains in food cost or space consumption can disappear quickly amid diminished service resulting from staff challenges.

“There’s no question that what I call menu rationalization, when done well, cuts down on waste because your ingredient turnover increases,” says Lombardi, of WD Partners in Dublin, Ohio.

But he says problems can occur when the cause of streamlining ingredients and store size reduces kitchen space to the point that cooks aren’t efficient. “You have to consider ergonomics, employee fatigue and safety when you start changing a kitchen in the interest of changing the menu. To change to the point that the kitchen becomes undesirable for employees makes the whole thing a false and foolish economy.”

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