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How to Profit From Proper Prep Work

By Jim Laube

Almost everyone has had that dream in which they show up to class on exam day, and are completely unprepared for the test. All of us fear being unprepared, and for good reason. It creates disorganization, frustration and lost opportunity, and can be costly.

An essential area of competence and consistent execution in any restaurant is in the preparation stage of the food production process. The implication of not having your act together here is immense because it has a direct effect not only on your food cost but even more importantly, every guest's dining experience.

In this article we'll discuss 12 practical and profitable preparation practices designed to help you control your costs and enhance the odds that your kitchen is capable of creating the food products your guests want and expect.

Profitable Prep Practice No. 1: Develop and Use Standard Recipes

Imagine eating in a new restaurant that's just opened in your neighborhood. You notice it has one of your very favorite dishes on the menu, let's say it's the seafood pasta. You order the dish, and when it comes to the table it's a big, healthy portion. It's steaming-hot and tastes absolutely wonderful. It might just be the best seafood pasta you've ever had. Any chance you'll return to this restaurant? Absolutely. In fact, you might even become an evangelist for the place, and tell other people about it.

Let's say you return to this restaurant in a couple of weeks and you've brought with you some additional friends or family members to share the experience. When the server comes to the table you don't even have to see the menu because you already know what you're going to order, the seafood pasta. But when your dish of pasta arrives, you immediately notice something. The portion size is not nearly as generous, there's no steam rolling off the plate and it just doesn't taste the same. It is not nearly as good as it was on your last visit. Are you disappointed? Yes. Are you still going to tell people what a great restaurant it is? Probably not. Are you going to return? Maybe not. In fact, there's a possibility that you may never give this restaurant a second chance and they may have lost you as a customer forever.

Why do people return to any restaurant? They go back because they liked what they got the last time. Customers today don't want surprises. They want and expect "consistency." If not, they'll go someplace else. And we all know how many dining choices there are these days.

Why is McDonald's® the largest restaurant franchise in the world? It's not because of its culinary skill. It's because people know exactly what they will be served at McDonald's. What if McDonald's had amazing and creative cuisine? They would be downright scary.

Just to remind you of the importance of repeat business, National Restaurant Association surveys have found that the average fine-dining restaurant gets around 60 percent of sales from repeat customers. Among casual operations, that figure increases to around 80 percent. It's just more proof that you live or die in this business not by how many people you attract once, but by how many first-timers you can turn into regulars, who keep coming back again and again.

To be consistent and prepare food that looks and tastes the same every time, day after day a restaurant must not only have standard recipes, but it must use standard recipes. A standard recipe contains all the ingredients, quantities, cooking and preparation procedures. Restaurants need to have a standard recipe for every sauce, dressing, batch, subrecipe and menu item. Many operators keep laminated menu cards conveniently located in the kitchen or preparation areas where they are easily accessible and can be used consistently.

Although the biggest reason to use standard recipes is because it has a direct bearing on customer satisfaction, there are other reasons, too. Using standard recipes consistently:

  • Helps control the use of your expensive products and ingredients.

  • Ensures accurate portion and menu cost information.

  • Saves time and labor in training new cooks and kitchen personnel.

  • Saves you from being held hostage to a chef who keeps all the recipes in "his head."

Speaking of chefs, one potential challenge in this area is often posed by our key kitchen personnel. Chefs, as most of us know, are not cooks but artists. Now obviously, we admire and encourage the creativity and skills of our chefs; however, in most cases it's better to see their creativity at work in the development stage of the menu process rather than every day in the production stage.

Some kitchen people, especially those who have been around awhile, can be among the worst offenders of not preparing recipes the right way because they've done it so many times they think they know them. Chances are you want a chef to be unique, distinctive and artistic up front, when the recipes are developed. But once a dish is perfected, just the way you want it, the recipe should be documented, then prepared consistently, the same way every time, day in and day out in the production stage. See "Checklist: The Basic Steps to Standardizing Recipes," below.

Profitable Prep Practice No. 2: Just Say 'No' to Nibbling

Many operators underestimate the cost of employees "snacking" on food products at their disposal. Say you employ a staff of just 10 people on a typical shift and each one helps himself to a chicken wing, dessert, or piece of shrimp once or twice during every shift. That can add up to a lot of product and lots of dollars that come right off your bottom line. Where can nibbling occur? In the kitchen, dining room, dish room, anyplace in the restaurant.

If you have a bar and it's slow, where do your servers and bartenders usually congregate? They hang out at the bar, around the garnish tray. And when they're gabbing about their social lives or whatever, what are they methodically plopping into their mouths? You've got it -- olives, cherries, orange wedges. The last time I checked, the cost of a large green olive was almost a dime. In a fairly short conversation, a group of your people can easily cost you not just their wages but also several dollars worth of food.

Here are suggestions for reducing the amount of unauthorized employee snacking. First, have a "no nibbling" policy. That means no snacking, period. Now obviously there are exceptions for certain employees, like chefs and cooks during line checks for example, but if a person doesn't need to test the quality of a product, the policy is no nibbling. Not only does this make good business sense but health inspectors will come down on you big time if they see employees eating while they work. So it's not just your rule but a sanitation issue as well.

Have a good employee meal policy. You've got to give your people something that's good and fills them up. If employees are hungry, chances are they will find something to eat. An employee meal program should also be a good benefit, too. While a free meal may work for some restaurants, for many, the employee meal becomes a collection of leftovers. A free employee meal is no benefit unless the food is good.

Many restaurants have employees order from the menu and eat the same food as the customers. It's not uncommon for such restaurants to give employees a major discount up to 50 percent to 70 percent off the menu price. This is a good benefit for the employees and it keeps them familiar with what's on your menu. It's very important for your staff, the servers in particular, to be very familiar and knowledgeable about the food they're selling and serving.

Let employees know how much products cost. Most employees have no concept about the price of the food they handle. Let them know during training and staff meetings that one 16-20 count shrimp costs you 53 cents or a green olive costs you 10 cents apiece.

You don't need to keep employees in the dark regarding the financial challenges of running a restaurant. Make them partners in the process. Let your employees know that operating a restaurant is a low-margin proposition without much room for error. (See "Give Your Staff an Education on the Realities of Restaurant Economics," on Page 30.)

Profitable Prep Practice No. 3: Preportion Whenever Possible

A national chain whose restaurants do probably the best job I've seen yet with controlling their food and labor costs are fanatics about preportioning. They preportion just about every conceivable product they use before it goes to the line. That includes meat, vegetables, salad, pastas, sauces, dressings and the list goes on.

The extra steps taken during the preliminary prep stage helps them control food usage, provide consistent portion sizes for their customers, and reduce final prep time on the line. Final prep time is reduced because line cooks don't have to measure anything. It's basically, grab and go. This helps them reduce preparation time, speed up service to the guest and improves table turns, too.

Preportioning also allows them to operate with fewer line cooks. Since line cooks command a higher wage than prep personnel, this level of preportioning also has a positive effect on their labor cost.

Profitable Prep Practice No. 4: Provide the Right Portioning Tools

Make sure your people have the tools they need to do a good job of portioning. This includes scales for weighing, and correctly sized cups, scoops and ladles for measuring. It's a good idea to occasionally perform portion and utensil audits to make sure the right ones are actually being used. Companies that are serious about portioning have pictures posted in work areas showing portion sizes and tools to use for recipes and key products.

If you use dial scales in the kitchen, make sure they're accurate. If a scale has hit the floor a few times, chances are good that it may not be giving you a true weight. If the scale says 6 ounces of sliced turkey but it's actually 7 or 8 ounces, you're losing 10 percent to 15 percent of your food even though your people are trying to do a good, accurate job of portioning.

When calibrating dial scales you can't just set the needle back to zero. You need to use a separate weight to accurately calibrate. Use a pound of butter or a roll of quarters or dimes. A roll of quarters weighs 8 ounces, and a roll of dimes weighs 4 ounces. I know some operators who calibrate their dial scales once a week and some who even do it daily. (For more information on scales, see "Measuring Up: Tipping the Scales Toward Success," on Page 62 of this issue.)

Profitable Prep Practice No. 5: Use a Rubber Spatula

Imagine someone in your kitchen mixing a sauce or dressing in a big bowl. After they're done, they dump the contents into another container and fail to use this "high-tech" piece of equipment we call a rubber spatula to get every last drop.

How much product ends up going down the dish room drain? I've heard as much as 2 percent to 3 percent of whatever was in the bowl. As you know, managing details is the key to profitability in the kitchen. You need to do those things that save you a few pennies and nickels at a time, but eventually add up to big dollars.

Now think about inventory levels and employee behavior. If you always have lots of inventory around, say 10 jars of mayo or mustard on the shelf, what are the chances that an employee will bother using a rubber scraper to get every drop out of an empty jar? Not much because there are 10 more jars on the shelf. But what if there are only one or two jars left? Is the product perceived as being more valuable when there's less of it around? Absolutely! And when there's little or no excess inventory around, rubber scrapers and other waste-saving devices end up being used more often, which means more products are being used instead of ending up in the trash or being sent down the drain.

Profitable Prep Practice No. 6: Serve Hot Food Hot

There is nothing more basic in this industry than serving hot food hot. However, just think about your last 10 or so visits to a restaurant, other than your own. How many times did your entree come to the table really hot? Maybe it was three times, and maybe four, but it was probably nothing close to nine or 10. Serving lukewarm food when it should be hot has a major effect on whether your guest will be delighted, disappointed or tempted to send the plate back to the kitchen.

Restaurants that make a point of serving hot food hot generally do one or more of the following:

Make hot food in the window a top priority of everyone on the floor. In these restaurants, it doesn't matter whose food is at the window. Whoever is closest to it, whether it's another server or even a manager, takes the order to the table immediately. These restaurants use a ticket system that shows each order's table number and who, at each table, gets what. You can tell restaurants that use this system because your food is often brought to the table by someone other than your server.

Use a server paging system. Some restaurants use a server paging system to notify servers that their orders are coming up at the window. The expediter hits a bump bar in the kitchen indicating the table number when an order is nearing completion. This sends a signal to the appropriate server over a local paging system, notifying them one of their orders will be up momentarily.

Put hot food on hot plates. Since putting hot food on an unheated plate is the quickest way to cool it off, many restaurants heat their plates. Some of the experts in the industry say we should be heating our plates to 180-200 degrees Fahrenheit. If you heat your plates up to that temperature you have to give your servers something to protect their hands with. Small hand towels generally do the job.

Years ago, while conducting a food cost seminar, a manager from a popular high-end steak chain told me they heated their plates up to 450 F before they put a steak on them. The steak is actually sizzling on the plate as its being served to the guest. Now that's hot food hot.

Profitable Prep Practice No. 7: Don't Let Employees Consume Mistakes

This one is pretty simple. It's not a good idea to let your employees consume mistakes. If employees are able to consume products that you can't serve to your customers due to some cosmetic imperfection or preparation foul-up, you're actually providing incentive for those mistakes to happen more often.

Profitable Prep Practice No. 8: Don't Overproduce

There are different ways to look at the issue of how much product to put into production. Obviously no one intentionally wants to prep too much or not enough, but if you have to err on one side or the other what's the preferred way to go?

I often pose this question to people in my live seminars. Their response generally depends on what segment of the business they are in. Many quick-serve operators would rather overproduce because their customers expect the food to be ready when they order it. Since people choose fast food often on the basis of convenience and speed of service, operators would upset customers and lose business if the food isn't ready to go moments after it's ordered.

I know a very successful quick-serve operator who tracks the amount of food that is made in advance of the order and has to be pulled and thrown away because it exceeded its holding time. He expects this type of waste to cost him around 1 percent of sales. While he doesn't want this amount to be much more than 1 percent of sales, if it's less than 1 percent he's not happy either because it probably means that not enough food is being prepared in advance and some customers are probably waiting too long for their orders.

Most full-service operators I work with say they would rather underproduce a little. Their reasoning is that overproduction means more waste and higher food cost. I'm not advocating that you intentionally underproduce on a regular basis. However, if you're doing a good job of controlling your inventory levels and daily production, there's a good chance that the restaurant will occasionally have an unanticipated spike in business or run on a certain product and will end up not having everything that's ordered.

This begs the question, how have you trained your servers to handle those situations? If you don't brief your wait staff on how to respond, they will generally apologize for running out of that item. This leaves the impression that you're incompetent and didn't order or prepare enough. If servers explain that the item has been a real favorite and you've already "sold out" of that item, then it leaves the impression that it's a popular item and they just got there a little too late. You might say that this is just semantics but the way your servers respond can leave a very different impression in your customer's mind about your restaurant. It's a good idea to train and remind your staff that the restaurant may "sell out" of a lot of things but you never, ever "run out" of anything.

Profitable Prep Practice No. 9: Become Obsessed With Sanitation

A fanatical commitment to frequent and thorough sanitation procedures is not just the right thing to do but will have a major effect on your food quality and cost. The better your sanitation habits, the longer your shelf life and the fresher your products will be.

Keep bottles of the sanitizing solution everywhere in the kitchen and instruct employees to use them constantly. Also, conduct the following four-step demonstration and prove to yourself and your employees the importance of sanitation and how it affects shelf life, food quality and cost:

Step one. Get two heads of lettuce, a knife that's not razor-sharp, a recently sharpened knife, cutting board and two clean plastic bags.

Step two. Grab one head of lettuce and the not-so-sharp knife. Don't sanitize the knife, cutting board or the sink and by all means don't wash your hands. Chop up the head of lettuce and wash it in cool tap water. Then drain it, and place it in a clean plastic bag with a couple of holes in it so it can breathe. Store it in a refrigerator immediately.

Step three. Now, wash your hands and sanitize the sharp knife, the cutting board and sink and repeat the process with the second head of lettuce. Only this time, inspect that head of lettuce and remove any brown, damaged or diseased parts before you prep it. Wash the lettuce immediately in the sink with cold tap water that has been further chilled with some ice. Then rinse and store the lettuce exactly as you did the previous batch.

Step four. Inspect the lettuce every day for two to three days. By the third day, you will no doubt have one bag of brown, dead lettuce and one bag of crisp, fresh-looking lettuce you'd be proud to serve anyone.

The point of that demonstration is that sanitation, sharp knives and correct preparation procedures have a huge effect on food quality, shelf life and your food cost.

Profitable Prep Practice No. 10: '86' Kitchen Trash Cans

Think about the trash cans in your kitchen. Probably not something you give much attention, but trash cans in the kitchen have been called kitchen "black holes of profitability." What kinds of things might end up in kitchen trash cans besides waste and scraps? If there's a training gap or people are careless when prepping fruits, vegetables or whatever, good usable product can end up in the trash can. Say someone is filleting a piece of fish or meat and inadvertently makes a slice in the wrong place. Might they be tempted to hide their mistake in the trash can? It not only can, but, in fact, does happen.

I know of operators who have removed all the trash cans out of their kitchens and replaced them with clear plastic food boxes. They gave a clear plastic food box to each of their prep cooks with their own name on it. The prep cooks were instructed to place all of their scraps, trimmings and waste into their own food box.

At the end of each shift, the manager would briefly inspect the contents of each cook's food box. If there was good product being thrown out, it was brought to the employee's attention and if necessary they'd receive some on-the-spot training.

Now let me be clear about this, they didn't use the food boxes as a means to beat up on their people but rather to build awareness and better train them. This operator noticed that during the first few days of using the food boxes they were counting about eight big food boxes of trash going out to the dumpster each day. After three or four days of inspections and on-the-spot training, it went down to seven boxes. After a week of the same it was reduced to six boxes, and after two weeks they were averaging only around five and a half boxes of trimmings and waste going out to the dumpster.

And what was happening to the food that used to be going out in the trash? It was now going on the plate. What do you think happened to their food cost? Food cost went down 1.5 to 2 points.

In the kitchen, the key to controlling food cost is product use, i.e., using as much product as possible and minimizing the amount of food that is wasted, thrown out or in some way not used. Just as an aside, increasing your product use in the preparation stage can also be a double win because if less product is going out to the dumpster, you may be able to lower your trash-hauling costs as well.

Profitable Prep Practice No. 11: Use Leftovers

Why throw quality food away if there's a good way to use it in another recipe? I'm sure you've heard that the reason soup was invented was to use leftovers. Some restaurants have been very creative and have come up with wonderful recipes to help them use their leftovers. Years ago TGI Friday's® came up with potato skins as an appetizer primarily as a way to use their leftover baked potatoes. Wendy's® uses burger meat in their chili. Day-old bread and rolls can go in the bread pudding or homemade croutons for salads.

The restaurants that I've worked with that do the best job of using their leftovers do this. They clearly identify what products can and can't be safely used the next shift or day. One person is assigned to be the recipient of all the leftovers at the end of each shift. They collect, pack and store them in a designated storage location. On the next shift, one person is responsible for examining the leftover situation and determines how those products can be used during the current shift.

Profitable Prep Practice No. 12: Keep Knives and Blades Sharp

It's important to keep your knives and blades sharp. When knives are dull, employees use more force to cut through objects. This makes it easier for the knife to roll off and cut whatever is in the way, usually a finger or two.

Dull knives also tear and cause more damage to the fiber of the product causing bruises and opening the way for quicker browning and deterioration. Sharp knives create far less fiber damage and prolong the vitality and visual appeal of the food, giving you longer shelf life.

Many operators have their knives sharpened by an outside service every week or two. It results in greater productivity, longer shelf life, higher quality food, and employees retain more fingers.

Move to the Head of the Class

Preparation is the key to success in every endeavor, including the restaurant business. Employ proper practices in your kitchen to keep a check on costs and use of resources, and you'll always be ready on exam day, which, in the restaurant business, is every day.

-- Restaurant Startup & Growth


Give Your Staff an Education on the Realities of Restaurant Economics

Have you ever thought about how much money your employees think your restaurant makes? They believe you are rolling in dough, no pun intended. When I work with independent operators I make a point of pulling a few employees, one by one off to the side and ask them how much money they think the owner gets to keep out of every dollar in sales. What do you think I hear? You probably guessed it: up to 50 cents and more. The least amount I ever heard was a quarter. Does this preconceived notion of big profit margins affect employees' attitudes and behavior? You bet it does. Let them know that this is a low-margin business.

I've known operators who have assembled their employees and conducted a very effective demonstration on restaurant economics. They give each employee 100 pennies, which represents a dollar in sales. They then start paying the bills. The employee then counts out and hands back 30 pennies for food, 32 pennies for wages and benefits, six pennies for rent, three pennies for utilities and so on. When all the expenses are paid, guess what's left? National Restaurant Association surveys tell us that the typical independent restaurant in the United States has a net income of less than 5 percent of sales before taxes. That means the average restaurant owner keeps less than a nickel out of every dollar in sales.

Educate your staff about the financial realities of your business. The more your people know, the more they'll understand why the little things in the restaurant business are so important and how their actions greatly affect whether the restaurant remains in business. When people understand, they usually do the right thing. The problem is that when you withhold information, people are forced to make assumptions and the assumptions they make are often wrong.


The Basic Steps to Standardizing Recipes

  • Determine the quantity of ingredients.

  • List the ingredients in order of use.

  • Reference equipment to use and include temperature, cooking times, mixer speeds and even container sizes.

  • Include yields and portion sizes.

  • Give garnish specs of each plate.

  • Put this information on laminated recipe cards and make them easily accessible to your prep people.

  • Display photos of final plate presentation.

One of the most important steps is to have color photos of each item's plate presentation in view close to the final prep or expo areas. Many full-service chain restaurants do this. Anyone can look at a picture and see how the plate is supposed to look when it's ready for the customer.




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