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How chains are doing more with less

Focusing on versatile ingredients to cut prep time, save labor
Photograph: Shutterstock

Many of the fastest-growing restaurant chains have relatively simple menus. Chick-fil-A, for example, was built around one central menu item—the chicken sandwich. It’s easy to see why chains such as Chick-fil-A are attracted to simpler menus: The ever-increasing costs of operating a restaurant require operators to look for efficiencies throughout their operations, and one of the biggest areas of opportunity may be found in ingredient inventory.

“Giving a customer options is very necessary, but too many options can also be crippling,” says Jenny Dorsey, a chef and culinary consultant. “The rise and success of fast-casual brands is a testament to the fact a limited menu array can be both satisfying to the customer and profitable for the business.”

Menu simplification allows operators to reap multiple benefits from inventory efficiencies, including:

  • Reduced risk of spoilage, as the menu does not include perishable inventory items that are not used frequently.
  • Storage needs for inventory are also reduced in a restaurant where menus are simplified. Fewer ingredients mean fewer slow-moving items taking up space on shelves, allowing for streamlined restaurant design and reduced square footage.
  • Concentrating inventory purchasing among a smaller number of high-volume items also translates into purchasing at higher volumes, which reduces per-unit ingredient costs.
  • A simplified menu can also help streamline kitchen preparation processes, including the training required to teach employees how to prepare items.

Offering a simpler menu doesn’t require operators to abandon variety altogether, however. The creative use of common ingredients across multiple menu items allows operators to give consumer options without significant expansion of inventory.

At Chipotle Mexican Grill, customers can order from a relatively simple list of ingredients that can be prepared in four different forms—burritos, bowls, salads and tacos—and each order can also be customized to include the specific ingredients that customers prefer.

One of the ways operators successfully cross-utilize ingredients on different menu items is to use the items in widely different ways, including in different dayparts, so that customers don’t necessarily notice the same ingredient being used in different items. The bacon, mushroom and Swiss cheese offered in an omelet on the breakfast menu, for example, becomes a signature bacon, mushroom and Swiss cheeseburger at lunch, or gets combined with chicken or turkey in a wrap.

Some experts suggest that every ingredient should be utilized in at least a few different menu items in order to remain on a restaurant’s inventory, and others suggest that menu items should include no more than a handful of unique items.

“Restaurants should be wary of menu items that need more than three unique inputs if they cannot be used elsewhere,” said Dorsey.

Other ingredients that lend themselves to cross-utilization included prepared foods that can have multiple uses, such as soups. A tomato soup, for example, could stand on its own, be incorporated into a casserole or used to make an herbed tomato sauce or a barbecue sauce.

Utilizing such speed-scratch cooking processes not only helps keep the ingredient list to a minimum, but also helps minimize labor costs and helps drive consistency. Both are increasingly important in today’s high-turnover environment.

This post is sponsored by Campbell's Foodservice

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