Of course, we still need to operate within our budgets. In any kitchen, the two biggest costs are food and labor. Today, let’s take a look at some practical ways we can control food costs.

First, let’s define what is meant by “food costs.” It can mean different things in different situations. One definition is simply your cost for the food on a particular plate. Another is that same cost expressed as a percentage of what you charge for it. Still another is what you’ve paid for all the food you’ve served during a particular period, usually a month; and then, how that amount compares to your monthly food budget. For many of us, this last scenario is probably the most important, simple and meaningful.

Inventory

To accurately figure out your monthly food costs, it’s important to use an opening and closing inventory. This is the only way to know what you’ve actually served that month, and not what you’ve purchased – there’s a difference.

If you haven’t used this system before, start by doing an “opening” inventory of all the food, and its value, that you have in stock. (Take your first inventory at the end of the last day of the month preceding the first month you plan to track.) At the end of the first month you’re tracking, add the value of the opening inventory to the cost of any food purchased during that month. Then do a “closing” inventory on the last day of that month and subtract its value from the sum of the opening inventory and purchases. This will tell you your cost for the products that were actually used. This is the amount to compare to your monthly food budget. Continue to take an inventory on the last day of every month.

For kitchens that haven’t done inventories before, this can seem like a huge pain. But, not only does it get to be easy after a few times (using the buddy system helps), it’s the only way to know your true costs for a particular period. A big side benefit is that it will encourage your staff to really get to know and keep track of everything they have on hand, and maintain a much more clean and organized kitchen. This alone is an important step in improving control of your food costs.

Purchasing

The next important part of good cost control is purchasing. The goal of purchasing is to get the right amount of everything you need, with the correct specifications, when you need it. This task should be driven by your menu, recipes, the number of residents you need to serve and your delivery schedule. Take the time to determine exactly how much of each ingredient you will need to produce your menu for the number of people you will serve. Be organized; using a spreadsheet can help. It may be time consuming – especially at first – but without enough effort, you will either run out of product or waste food. Plan far enough ahead to get your orders in on time, with the right specs for each ingredient, knowing exactly how much to order. An important part of this process is to do a quick inventory of what you already have on hand. This will prevent over-ordering and throwing out spoiled product.

Receiving

After purchasing comes receiving. The goal of receiving is to make sure that you’re getting exactly what you ordered for the price you were quoted. ALWAYS weigh at least some, if not all, of any meat, seafood or produce order. This will keep your vendors honest, as well as checking against inevitable, occasional mistakes. Make sure whoever checks in the orders carefully counts and checks the dry goods, inspects the produce and smells all seafood for freshness.

You must also have a system in place to ensure that they are delivering what you have ordered. It’s no good if the invoice the driver shows you indicates 50 pounds of potatoes, he delivers 50 pounds of potatoes, but you ordered 100 pounds of potatoes. The best time and place to discover mistakes is when the order is being delivered. Easy returns and refunds for unacceptable product, and quick delivery of shorted items are two of the most important criteria for a vendor.

Storage

After the food has been received, it must be stored in a way to minimize loss from spoilage. Dry storage areas should be well ventilated, pest-free, well-lit and have enough room to make it easy to rotate stock and do inventories. Refrigerators and freezers should be checked frequently for correct temperatures and cleanliness. All storage areas should be organized and cleaned on a regular basis to make it as easy as possible for the people doing the ordering, inventory and prep to see at a glance what’s there. All of the above tasks should be part of regular, documented schedules. Excess inventory and inventory that spoils before you use it is money wasted for no reasons other than lack of attention and effort.

Portion Control

Another important factor in terms of your costs, as well as your residents’ satisfaction, is portion control. This takes place during both prep and at service. When fish and meats are butchered, pay close attention to waste and portion size. Any usable trim should be properly stored for future use, and portions should be very accurate. Your kitchen should have both ounce and pound scales for different jobs, and they should be checked periodically for accuracy. If your staff isn’t properly trained, or if you don’t have the space to butcher on site, you’ll be better off buying pre-portioned items. The higher cost of the products will be offset by the labor you save, as well as having no wasted product during production. Also give some thought to choosing the most cost-effective cuts to use in different situations. For example, for a chicken entrée, buying 6-ounce breasts are worth the expense, but for chicken salad, random breasts will work just as well for less money.

Some items lend themselves to pre-portioning during prep, others don’t. For sauces and soups, have the correct size ladle available, and be sure your staff knows to use only one ladle per portion. Vegetables and rice will often work better with the appropriate scoop. Spot checking by a manager is never a bad idea. Time spent working with your cooks on portioning and presentation is always time well spent.

Recipes

Besides the obvious direction recipes offer in producing a dish, they are also a great tool to help with cost control. A well-written recipe with accurate yields will be a big help to a chef in terms of ordering and prep, improving both food and labor costs. (Of course, this value is proportionate to how much the recipes are actually used.)