Only the strong – and the smart – survive
I’m always surprised and impressed by the level of camaraderie that exists among most of our Cape Region restaurants. Of course they are in competition. But I’ve seen instance after instance where a neighboring restaurateur will go out of his or her way to assist another when things go awry. And things do – and will – go awry in this business of eating.
There’s so much that happens behind the scenes. We all know that healthy competition can result in better food, service and prices for the guests. But what many people don’t know is that food purveyors – the suppliers/trucking companies from which restaurants purchase their ingredients – compete for restaurants’ business. And while local eateries strive to make themselves more appealing to the diner, the purveyors do the same thing for the eateries, using programs and procedures to encourage restaurants to utilize their products efficiently and economically.
I’ve written in the past that few things are more annoying than uninformed “critics” who vilify a restaurant because of its supplier. I can’t count how many times I’ve received emails that whine, “Well, I don’t eat at restaurants that buy from ... [fill in the blank: Sysco, US Foods, Gordon Foods – you name it].” A more educated look would reveal that the quality of ingredients and the trucks in which they’re shipped are not at all related.
Blaming a food purveyor for the quality of a restaurant’s food is no different from blaming UPS or FedEx for the quality of an item you bought online. The food purveyors deliver whatever the restaurant orders. What the restaurant does with it is up to their motivation and skills in the kitchen. For example, one of the most popular food sources offers 40 different kinds of ham. The restaurant can order a $1,000 Iberico ham (yes, you read that right), or they can order a high-quality, moderately priced product from Boar’s Head. Depending on the restaurant’s price point, a capable chef will use his or her skills to convert either one of those ingredients into a dish the customers will love, while keeping the all-important food costs in check.
In the interest of competition and keeping their customers in business, many of the major purveyors also provide value-added services. For example, the Ocean City Hotel Motel Restaurant Association Spring Trade Expo, held in the spring of each year, is a valuable resource for exhibitors and attendees. Accomplished chefs will offer on-site presentations and will even do in-restaurant demonstrations for their clients. Though that $1,000 Iberico ham might be delicious, it’s to the individual purveyor’s benefit to train restaurant owners and cooks to use more moderately priced ingredients. The math is simple: If they maintain their costs with careful buying and preparation, they will survive to cook – and buy food – another day.
Some of the larger sources of restaurant supplies make computerized systems available to their customers. The software often runs in conjunction with the restaurants’ point-of-sale system to provide a real-time look at the dishes sold and whether they actually contributed to the business profits.
One of the biggest mistakes made by inexperienced restaurant owners is pricing their products. More than one restaurant has failed because they quite literally lost money every time they sent an entrée out of the kitchen. Systems are available that help the owner and/or chef figure out what to charge for a particular dish based on the cost of its parts. In other words, if the restaurant pays X dollars for those two all-beef patties (how big are they?), special sauce (and what’s used to make it), lettuce (what percentage of a head is used?), cheese (1 slice? 2 slices?), pickle slices (3? 4?), onions (what percentage of an onion is used?) – on a sesame seed bun, then the menu price must reflect how much they paid for the ingredients, plus rent, labor, utilities, taxes ... the list goes on and on.
Now more than ever, qualified kitchen help is hard to find. Food manufacturers and purveyors work hard to provide ingredients that are easier to prepare and require less hands-on time.
Of course, there can never be a substitute for a skilled chef. But you get what you pay for, and the vagaries of seasonal restaurant operations make it difficult to attract and maintain that sort of talent. In fact, many of our gifted chefs here in the Cape Region are owners or partners in their own restaurants. For the last 16-plus years, I’ve been writing that only the strong survive in this business of eating. Nowhere is that more painfully obvious than here at the beach.
Bob Yesbek writes and talks beach eats nonstop. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.