The art – and science – of professional food service
Lurking among the roughly 60 to 100 emails and texts I receive daily are complaints about menu items that were unavailable at a restaurant. A visit to pretty much any grocery store will confirm that product shortages are indeed a real thing, and the problem is no less an issue for our local eateries. The disappearance of food items that were in abundance just a couple of years ago can be attributed to many factors. I'll just leave that right there. Moving on …
Many of the things I reference here on this page, at RehobothFoodie.com and on the radio were learned from my experience owning or being a partner in restaurants and nightclubs in and around the Washington, D.C. area. At my most recent eatery, I would announce during the daily lineups (a quick meeting of servers/staff before a shift), “This is not a drill! We are professionals. Please act like one!” They giggled, but what they didn’t know was that those words applied to me more than they ever would to them. My successes (and failures) had a direct impact on all of their bank accounts. The employees could simply walk out if they wanted to. If I walked out, I’d go to jail.
Back to ordering food: One of our specialties at my barbecue joint was hickory-smoked ribs. They were not cheap even back then, and cooking them required about 12 hours in the smoker. How many of these expensive food items should we prepare that far in advance? On our very first day, that was anybody’s guess. And barely three hours after we turned the key – we ran out. Now if it had been fries, burgers or pork chops, we’d be dishin’ ‘em up in no time (there was a grocery store right around the corner). But not ribs. Seemed awkward to ask guests to wait 12 hours for their entrees. I was embarrassed. And that’s when I learned about keeping track of things. Yes, shortages in food orders are inevitable nowadays, but at least some problems can be minimized by controlling what’s already in the kitchen.
Restaurateurs call these calculations “pars.” In golf, it means the predetermined number of strokes that a player should make on each hole. In restaurant lingo, it’s the predetermined amount of product that a restaurant should have on hand to complete a successful service. The number is based on the history of sales, weather and other factors such as holidays, etc. If you shoot below par in golf, you’re a hero. But I was not a hero during our partially ribless grand opening.
Fans of Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible” watch as Chef Robert Irvine drags a failing owner into the walk-in and points to boxes and boxes of inventory. “There’s your money!” he tells them. One of the fixes is a smaller menu that requires less perishable food on hand. Another fix is tracking inventory with weekly, monthly and yearly par sheets that record exactly how much of each menu item was sold on that particular day. A savvy executive chef or kitchen manager can then extrapolate how many New York strips, tomatoes, corndogs, green beans or chicken wings he or she might need for next Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Or Sunday. You get the idea. He or she can adjust food orders, delivery schedules and average inventory based on that history. The longer a restaurant is in business, the more accurate this system becomes as the averages become trends. Though I certainly did have barbecue sauce all over my face on that fateful grand opening, in in my defense, it was our very first day. Not much history to track.
There are computer systems that take much of the drudge out of maintaining sensible inventory. Point of Sale - aka POS - systems, if properly programmed, can compare sales for each individual item or ingredient to similar days in the past. This becomes especially useful when a menu item contains a number of ingredients. A big salad, for example, might involve ingredients ordered from several different purveyors, each in different weights and quantities. If the software is programmed to know exactly how much carrot, celery, feta cheese, romaine, cucumber, grape tomatoes, croutons, sunflower seeds, red peppers, olives, bean sprouts and avocado (not to mention the ingredients in the dressing) goes into each big salad, then every time a server sends an order to the kitchen, the system adds that exact amount to the upcoming order, along with the day and time the salad was sold.
Restauranting is a lot more than being able to make food. Careful attention to details like pars and portions is a huge factor in ensuring success. It’s details like those that make me cringe when somebody says, “Aunt Murlene makes really good pancakes! She should open a restaurant!” Unless Aunt Murlene is independently wealthy, she’ll need to master the behind-the-scenes calculations and procedures that will help her stay in business. In the immortal words of longtime restaurateur Paula Deen, “It ain’t all about the cookin’!”
Bob Yesbek writes and talks beach eats nonstop. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.