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Chef as Accountant - Part 2

Last time, we looked at food cost basics, starting with defining them and how to measure them. It's an important topic, not just for the blossoming accountant in you, but because, fundamentally, food cost management and inventory turnover serve as models for thinking about your longterm success: trimming costs, growing revenues, and maintaining the quality you care about.

Your Menu Should Leverage Your Kitchen's Strengths

The first step in controlling your food costs occurs when you write your menu. It is obviously of paramount importance to write a menu that offers a sufficient variety of choices at the right price and style for your restaurant. The menu items should leverage the strengths of your kitchen staff and avoid their weaknesses, while always being practical in terms of equipment and space.

Not as obvious, but very important to food costs: The ingredients required to make the menu items should work together to ensure maximum usage and no waste.

If one of your dishes has finely julienned red peppers in it, consider having a red pepper coulis made from the ribs, tops and bottoms of the peppers somewhere else on the menu. Scraps from onion rings can go into the stockpot, along with a lot of other things that will do your food more good than if they go into the garbage. (There are some exceptions, such as any member of the cabbage family -- don't go overboard.)

If you cure your own salmon, make a mousse or spread from the scraps. If you have enough scraps to put a salmon mousse appetizer on your menu, great. If not, you can always give away salmon mousse bruschetta when your guests first sit down, and start their meal off on the right foot at no real cost, or put the bruschetta on another plate as garnish. Even seemingly miniscule scraps from the preparation of one dish might be sufficient to be a garnish in one of your soups. Trimmings from cuts of beef can go into a bolognese sauce.

Even if it takes you a week to accumulate enough scraps to run a special for one day, do it. At the very least, if you can't figure out how to get a byproduct from one menu item somewhere else on the menu in another form, serve it for a family meal and save some money and create goodwill that way. For this concept to work, your kitchen has to be organized enough to make sure that scraps from one station are saved and moved into the hands of another station that will turn them into mise en place. Cooperation and organization, of course, are always good habits to develop and encourage in any kitchen.

Getting the Right Amount of Everything You Need

The next step on the way to good food cost control is purchasing. The goal of purchasing is to get the right amount of everything you need, when you need it, with the correct specifications, at the best price available with an acceptable level of service. All purchases should be menu-driven. The purchasing agent should work closely with the chef and manager, assuming they're not all the same person, to determine what, when and how much of everything to order.

A list of all food items, including pertinent specifications, preferred vendors and price history should be written (spreadsheets are handy for this). Pertinent information should include brand names, grades and specific cuts of meat (use the North American Meat Processors Association "Meat Buyers Guide"), type and size of container, the unit (e.g., pounds, each, gallon) each price is quoted for and any other information important to your situation.

This list will also come in handy when you're figuring out food costs for individual dishes. Par stocks should be determined and a physical inventory, even if it's a quick one, should be done before any order is placed. Ordering something you don't need is as sloppy and expensive as not ordering what you do need. It's usually advisable to have more than one vendor for each type of product (meat, dairy, dry goods, seafood…) to keep them interested and competitive.

However, especially if you're a small operation, it might be better to give most of your business to fewer purveyors so that you can be a more significant account to them. This is, of course, only for as long as they treat you as if you're significant. Watch prices like a hawk and always be aware of the timeliness of deliveries. Also realize that being organized and paying your bills on time go a long way in getting the best service out of any vendor. 

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