As if it wasn’t important to know your true food costs before the pandemic, it’s all the more crucial now as many restaurants around the country are having to operate at a reduced capacity, rethink their menus and determine where to best allocate diminished resources. By getting an accurate handle on your waste, over-portioning, theft and even the shrinkage of ingredients, you can see what menu items are really costing you – then adjust your promotions so you encourage guests to select your highest-margin items. A recent webcast from Restaurant365 reinforced the power of tracking actual vs. theoretical food costs as a means of accomplishing this. Theoretical food costs are what your food costs should be based on the cost of your ingredients, while actual food costs are what your restaurant actually spent. There will be variance in those numbers, but getting a more precise understanding of where it comes from can help you minimize it. While there are a number of places to focus to help cut waste, it can be most helpful to analyze your individual ingredients and identify those with the greatest cost variance. Drilling down like this can help you zero in on what needs attention or adjustment, whether it’s your portion control of a certain dish, the prices you are getting from a supplier, or the need for a substitute dish on the menu.
If you currently lease your space, you have likely had some interesting conversations – hopefully productive ones – with your landlord in recent weeks. While restaurant operators may be struggling to pay rent, it’s not like there is a long list of businesses waiting to take your place if you were to vacate. Use any good will you have accumulated to negotiate more beneficial terms to your lease. Even the big guys are testing their leverage: Restaurant Business reported recently that Starbucks has asked its landlords for a year’s worth of rent breaks due to the pandemic – and The Cheesecake Factory claimed it wouldn’t be paying rent in April at all. Of course, landlords have their own bills to pay, so if you’re struggling to pay rent, acknowledge your shared challenges. Can you get your rent reduced for a few months initially and then deferred over the course of your lease if you continue to pay taxes, maintenance and utility costs, for example? Can you pay rent on a sliding scale based on your revenue in the coming months – and provide proof of your efforts to keep business flowing? If you are getting support through the Paycheck Protection Program, how can you factor that into your negotiation? Refusing to pay rent likely won’t help your case, but if you can have a discussion about what fixed costs need to be met, you may be able to come to an agreement that’s preferable to the one you started with. What’s more, you may buy yourself a bit more time to adapt your business to current challenges and keep business coming in.
In March, restaurant traffic dropped by 22 percent compared to same period last year, NPD reports, but on the other hand, digital restaurant orders increased by 63 percent and delivery by 67 percent during the month. While operators have long struggled to make delivery work financially, particularly when using third-party providers, the uncertainty of the past couple of months has made the need for delivery ever clearer. So how can operators make the numbers work? In some parts of the U.S., restaurant co-ops are popping up that are providing delivery. While they were developed as a means of helping community restaurants survive the economic challenges of the pandemic, creative solutions like this may be needed on a more permanent basis going forward. Perhaps they are an option for you.
On March 26, President Trump signed the CARES Act stimulus legislation into law. The law provides support for restaurant and foodservice owners and workers in the form of payroll incentives, employee benefits, emergency grants and tax relief. (The National Restaurant Association provided a summary of the CARES Act’s benefits to the industry. https://restaurant.org/Articles/News/CARES-Act-provisions-whats-in-it-for-restaurants ) But will the benefits go far enough? Chef Tom Colicchio says no – particularly in the case of independent restaurants. Colicchio is founder of Crafted Hospitality and a visible member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), a newly formed group that is aiming to help save local restaurants impacted by COVID-19. The CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program, a key part of the new law, lets owners of restaurants with fewer than 500 employees apply for a loan of up to $10 million or two and a half months of payroll, whichever is less – and Colicchio said in an interview with Forbes that he thinks it is unlikely the industry will be back on track in that time frame. He is now working with the IRC to advocate for a six-month income replacement program worth $440 billion. Restaurants of any size could benefit on the condition that they continue to fully employ all restaurant staff, as well as pay rent and suppliers to keep money moving through the supply chain. The coalition is aiming to build a strong, united voice that can address lawmakers about what support the restaurant industry needs right now. In addition to providing daily legislative updates, it provides people on its mailing list with a social media toolkit, calls to action that can help operators mobilize their communities and networks, and key messages to use when speaking to the media to help get the word out about what independent restaurants need right now.
More isn’t more when it comes to your menu. As Fred LeFranc, managing partner of Results Through Strategy, told Restaurant Dive recently, operators can expect menus across restaurant segments to become simpler this year. There are a number of benefits your restaurant can generate by slimming down its menu – both for your financials and for your guests. The blog Chef Works suggests that a smaller menu will help you ensure your menu is a clear reflection of your brand, since extra items can muddy guest perceptions of a restaurant and the values behind it. It can also help your chef shine by focusing on the dishes and concepts that are his or her central strengths. As for your guests, you will make their decision simpler and easier to customize, minimizing the potential regret they may feel after ordering an item they’re uncertain about and making it easier for you to adapt items to their tastes and tolerances. (On that point, a smaller menu makes your business more efficient too, with fewer ingredients to prepare, potentially fewer suppliers to manage, fewer invoices to pay, and less waste.) Finally, having a smaller menu may give your restaurant more of a boutique feel, making each dish feel more special – not like a large collection of items offered in the hopes of appealing to every possible appetite.
For many restaurant operators around the country, 2019 has been the year of the rising wage. As the restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates reports, 21 states announced increases for 2019, and several states that already had high minimum wage rates saw major rises. California and Massachusetts saw increases above 9 percent and Maine experienced a 10 percent climb. Further increases are coming in 2020. Can your menu prices alone accommodate these sorts of increases in your labor spending? It’s not likely. To help your restaurant thrive amid labor challenges, Aaron Allen suggests operators assemble a plan that involves strategies for menu development, marketing, labor optimization, brand relevance and rejuvenation, technology adoption and even robotics. For instance, crafting a well-developed menu can lift check totals, increase party size and help you identify opportunities for limited-time offers, upsells and new profit lines. Conducting an audit of your brand and what sets it apart, as well as of your past, current and future marketing activity, can help you fine tune your strategy and avoid overspending. Similarly, if you audit how tasks are completed in your restaurant and what you’re spending on the labor required to complete each one, you might identify ways to adjust your service model or uncover tasks that can be eliminated or handled by technology. Speaking of tech, what processes can you make more efficient and guest-friendly through the use of technology? Could a tech-based solution help you minimize ongoing labor challenges? You may not need to take action in every area but knowing where you stand in these aspects of your business can help you pinpoint weaknesses that can lead to financial challenges down the line – and help you identify and build upon your greatest strengths.
Restaurant operators may feel pressured to minimize their food waste. But eliminate it? It’s a lofty goal but one that Henry Moynihan Rich, owner of the hospitality company Oberon Group, aimed to take on in an effort to become a model for restaurants looking to minimize or eliminate waste, GrubsStreet reports. Brooklyn’s Rhodora Wine Bar, formerly named Mettā, has adopted such practices as ordering wine in compostable boxes, eliminating liquor brands that don’t use recyclable caps, using a dishwasher that uses electrolyzed water that requires no soap, sourcing cheeses with edible rinds, eliminating paper receipts and sending used wine corks to a non-profit called ReCORK that turns corks into shoe soles. Any food left on guests’ plates will be fed into a large composter. Consumer waste from restrooms is collected in containers from TerraCycle, a company that collects and recycles items that are difficult to recycle elsewhere.
Late this summer, the Mediterranean fast-casual brand Cava opened its first innovation kitchen, a technology-driven effort designed to collect and analyze consumer tastes and trends in real time – without the time-consuming hassle of organizing focus groups or experimenting with new menu items in test locations. Cava isn’t the first brand to launch such an effort and it’s further evidence of the increased pressure restaurant operators face to innovate their menus and to get them right each time. Even if you don’t have state-of-the-art technology to help you fine-tune your menu, you can still innovate your menu well if you start with the problem you’re looking to solve. Are you looking to improve the quality of your off-premise options? Increase your dine-in traffic? Then let that question drive your decisions. Chefify advises operators to keep several factors in mind when making menu changes. First, be able to back up your prices with market research and an understanding of what your guests will enjoy and are willing to spend for a particular product. Next, make sure your new menu items are extensions of what you already do well – not overeager attempts to follow the latest trends. Third, be clear about your ingredients and list them so guests (particularly those with food allergies) can make the best choice for themselves. Fourth, make sure that if you need to cut food costs, focus on your less-essential ingredients so you’re not sacrificing the quality of the core ingredients that make your restaurant appeal to guests. Finally, opt for a minimal, easily understood menu that allows guests to make decisions quickly when they’re hungry and allows you to both minimize your food waste and improve your order accuracy.
Restaurant owners are stepping up to the challenge of minimizing their food waste. That was one conclusion of Toast’s recently released Restaurant Success in 2019 Industry Report, which surveyed 1,253 restaurant owners, operators and staff, along with a similar number of restaurant guests, about the experience of operating and dining at restaurants. Toast asked restaurant professionals to share how they’re reducing food waste in 2019. The responses included such actions as using leftover ingredients from one recipe in another (38 percent), offering multiple portion choices for guests (26 percent) and composting (25 percent). Others said they limit the number of items they prepare for service, offer an a la carte menu and cross-utilize ingredients in an effort to reduce food waste. Still, there is room for improvement as a considerable portion of those surveyed (26 percent) do nothing at all to reduce food waste at their business. The consequences aren’t just environmental but also financial: A reFED study found that the approximately 11 million tons of food waste generated by restaurants annually costs businesses about $25 billion per year – and that every dollar invested in food-waste reduction can save restaurants $8. The industry report emphasized that while you can’t control what someone eats or leaves behind, you can control your inventory. Your first course of action in managing waste is to keep close tabs on your shelves to reduce spoilage and avoid a tendency to over-order items – your inventory management system can help you take the best action.
At a time when restaurant finances are getting squeezed from many directions, do you know which budgetary battles are most important to fight? In other words, when you’re managing such expenses as labor, ingredients, rent and third-party delivery, does your balance sheet give you clear answers about how much each of those expenses is impacting your bottom line? It needs to, since your gut instinct may not be correct. Case in point: The results of a recent study by New School Center for New York City Affairs and the National Employment Law Project found that restaurants in New York City were more negatively impacted by rising occupancy costs and the fees charged by third-party delivery services than they were adversely affected by the near-doubling of the minimum wage paid to hourly employees in the past five years, Restaurant Business Online reports. The Fight for $15 wage battles of recent years had many operators concerned they would need to boost menu prices beyond what guests were willing to pay – and minimum wage escalation isn’t an insignificant expense for operators to be sure. But while New York isn’t like every market, the rising minimum wage in the city has had a smaller-than-expected impact in a diversity of regions, whether in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx. As the minimum wage has been ascending in geographical regions across the country for years, you may be able to protect your bottom line by focusing on negotiating more favorable terms with a third-party delivery company, adjusting your business model so you can occupy a smaller or different footprint, or getting a stronger handle on hidden back-of-house costs.