Every restaurant has prep duties, from chopping vegetables and cooking pasta to pounding chicken and plating desserts. Your labor costs -- especially in the kitchen – will be higher with menus that require a lot of prep work. One way to keep labor costs (and your payroll) down is to buy food that requires less kitchen prep time. But keep in mind that these convenience foods are often much more expensive than those made from scratch (just like home cooking versus eating out). To stay in the black, restaurants need to find a balance between prep time and labor costs and that will still produce a good food cost.
Convenience Foods to Save Money
For many restaurant menu items, it makes sense to buy convenience foods. For example, popular pub food—French fries, onion rings, and chicken tenders -- are all fairly cheap to buy already made and store them frozen. It would take a lot of staff time to prepare the same amount of food, and while the cost of the food would be lower, the cost of your payroll would be significantly higher, driving up your overall food cost.
Another example of how many restaurants save on labor but spend more on food costs is with dinner rolls or other bread. Few restaurants (save bakeries) make their bread. It would cost too much in labor, not mention space and equipment needed to produce commercial amounts of baked goods. For many establishments, it's far more cost effective to buy pre-made bread from a commercial supplier.
Made From Scratch
While convenience foods are a cost-saving alternative, sometimes its cheaper to make food from scratch. Menu items that you choose to make from scratch and what you choose to order from your food suppliers will depend largely on your restaurant concept and menu. If your restaurant specializes in authentic Southern barbeque ribs, you would most likely prepare these from scratch in-house, to ensure the highest quality food that can’t be found at other establishments. The same is true of authentic Italian food. If your specialty is a homemade red sauce, then it would not make sense to buy it from a food supplier.
Here is a list of menu items that save labor time without sacrificing the integrity of your menu.
- Salad Dressing and Sauces – Ready made salad dressings and sauces like BBQ sauce, honey mustard and marinara are fairly inexpensive to purchase and keep food cost low.
- Pre-Portioned Meats – Slicing and weighing and portioning deli meats and poultry can be very time consuming, driving up labor costs. If items like deli meats are not a huge part of your regular menu, purchasing them already pre-portioned will save you money.
- Pasta – Ravioli, gnocchi, and tortellini dress up traditional pasta dishes easily and inexpensively. While homemade pasta has a nice ring to it, it can be incredibly labor intensive and can quickly drive up your food cost.
- Desserts – There are lots of fabulous looking and tasting desserts that rival or exceed homemade desserts.
- Fried Appetizers - items like chicken wings, onion rings, French fries, and other fried pub food can usually be bought frozen without sacrificing taste.
Balancing low prep menu items with more labor intensive food prep is a good way to ensure quality dishes while keeping labor and food costs in line. Encouraging and training your kitchen staff to cross utilize ingredients will also help to save money and reduce food waste in the kitchen, which also impacts overall food cost. Having a good food cost is important to your overall restaurant budget - small savings in the kitchen can translate into bigger savings over time. And of course, no matter if you make the food in-house or purchase it from a food supplier, it needs to look good, taste good and be presented by friendly staff in an inviting environment.