The best restaurant operators are like the old men who taught me to play poker: they’ve got a few extra tricks up their sleeves when the cards aren’t going their way. Sure, every operator looks good when there are always fannies in the seats. Every decision you make goes well, each menu item you add sells, and every hire is the right one. The rare mistakes quickly get swept under the rug and everyone moves on.
But what happens in your building when times get a little harder? This business was built by the resilient, and for the resilient. Finding a way to work through the difficult times so that we can see the sun rise again is what the restaurant business is all about. You may be the type of operator willing to endure the tough times we all eventually encounter. But having a few cards in the deck is essential when it comes time to cut costs.
Sure, portion control is a no-brainer for cutting costs. But knowing it’s essential and re-training disinterested employees on how to watch portions is two different things. Not paying attention to portion sizes is one of the most common reasons that kitchens run high food costs.
Watching portion control means staying on top of employees to make sure that they…
• Use a scale for all proteins.
• Use scoopers, ladles, and dishers at all times.
• Keep track of bread and butter portions.
• Use smaller soup cups/salad plates.
More than anything, it means watchfulness and constant reminders. Portion control peters out too often in wasteful restaurants. Well-intentioned employees make careless errors that go unpunished. This happens everywhere in the restaurant business—make sure it doesn’t happen in yours.
In most restaurants, controlling labor means using total wages or labor cost percentage as a guideline, and cutting when it seems appropriate. But controlling labor costs can mean so much more and it starts at the top. Be creative to get your labor number as low as possible.
• Find motivated externs from local culinary schools.
• Add an inexperienced but motivated salaried employee who’s willing to put in the work.
• Delegate odd jobs for hostess staff/servers to do on their down time.
• Focus on reducing turnover to cut training costs.
• Take one slow day per week to bartend or host.
• Eliminate overtime.
Sure, it’s important to pay attention to labor cost percentage. Managers who know their bonus depends on cutting labor will be more likely pick up a little extra slack to keep their costs down.
Pay Vendors with Trade Gift Cards
This is a growing trend for independent restaurants—using gift cards or certificates in exchange for minor services such as janitorial work, landscaping, hood cleaning, and linen service. Gift cards are a cheaper expense because the business is paying on distributor cost. They have the advantage of bringing in potential new clientele and help personalize a working relationship.
Do Your Own Marketing
It’s easier said than done, but an extra half-hour each week online can make a sizeable impact to current and potential guests. For most restaurants, a social networking page such as those on Facebook or MySpace is a must have. These sites let you get the message out on discounts, special events, and promotions. Email blasts on lists gathered from in-house comment cards or other sources are also a great, low-cost idea.
Tying in with local vendors is another great way to cut costs. Local independents will often reduce prices for exposure in your restaurant. It makes sense. Fresh produce from a local dealer, whose name can be featured on your specials menu insert is a win-win proposition. A local ice cream maker who offers discounted ice cream in exchange for top billing on the dessert menu is another idea. These tie-ins also lend the impression that the restaurant is part of the fabric of the community.
Have a Staff Who Buys in
Many employees are tempted to cut valuable employees when revenues dip. This is often the worst move that anyone could make. It reduces morale and sends the wrong message to everyone paying attention. Instead, have employees who take ownership of their workspace and who care about you and the business. Take the time that comes with lulls to be sure that your staff knows that you care. The attention-to-detail that invested employees bring to your building is worth its weight in gold.