How to Run a Kitchen – 11 Critical Systems

Kitchens are the engines that drive restaurants. They are wonderlands of food production capacity and capability. But, above all else, they are the factories in which raw materials are converted into products for retail sale. When you look at a kitchen as a production facility, you can easily imagine the need for it to run efficiently and smoothly …along with the consequences to your business if it isn’t structured and operated with discipline. Food has a shelf life. It’s easy to steal through casual consumption. It’s easy for vendors to pass off sub-par products when they realize you’re not paying attention. When production is smooth, waste is minimal, and inventory is predictable. When recipes are executed correctly, customers swoon and come back. When work is organized, employees can grow in their careers and assess their own value. An organized and disciplined kitchen is certainly where a chef experiments with new creations and menu evolutions, but day in and day out, it’s the place where the menu must be executed …to perfection… the same way… every shift …every day. To pull this off, in my opinion, every kitchen must operate with these 11 systems (pay attention because most are done BETTER with a No.2 pencil and a clipboard…only one is a piece of software):

  1. Recipe Costing Software with Inventory Feature

    You need one that lets you enter recipes (this will be your recipe database), load inventory items with costs, and receive invoices to/through it so your recipes will stay up to date. If you choose, you can skip receiving invoices to/through it and just update commodity prices monthly or even quarterly…however often you will evaluate your menu for changes or updates. You truly need a simple system for this and you won’t use all of the bells and whistles of a more complex (aka expensive) system. We like Parsley but there are plenty of others on the market. Don’t use it for generating theoretical costs as you’ll need to hire someone just to manage the data going in to get anything close to accurate. When a computer’s output is polluted by bad data going into it, it can’t steer your business and the whole system becomes useless. Limit your expectations for what you need recipe costing and inventory software to do.

  2. Line Diagrams

    The chef should work with their teams to determine the most efficient layout for the cook line. Once everyone agrees on the right setup, diagram it, laminate it, post it,…and don’t tolerate changes to it based on personal preference. It’s ok to change it but it’s a discussion with an update to the diagram. Each station and each shelf in storage (ambient or chilled) needs to show what should be where. If a measurement tool (scoop or spoon or spoodle) is supposed to accompany the item (for instance, a ½ cup measure for olives), then make a note of it on the diagram. Make it pretty, keep it clean, and manage it hard.

  3. Line Check Routine

    The business end of this system is to make sure that, 30 to 45 minutes before service for every shift, someone goes up and down the line tasting EVERYTHING that can be tasted…open every drawer and inspect portion bags of ingredients for freshness (smell, look, date)… look for proper rotation, proper storage of seafood, proper covers on refrigerated items (so they don’t end up tasting like the fridge). That includes the mayonnaise, the olives, and the marinara. When this is done every day, if one recipe was not followed, you’ll catch it. You’ll discover when salt was accidentally used instead of sugar, or salsa that’s starting to turn, or new scallops dumped on top of old instead of segregated…all before your customers do. You’ll be ready to address servers at lineup with items you need to 86 so you can rework them and guests won’t order them only to have the server return 5 minutes later to inform them that it’s not available. When this happens to me in a restaurant, I know they don’t have a line check system and I change my order to the wings…at least I know they’ll be deep fried and kill any surface cross-contamination.

  4. Sales Forecast w/ Open-To-Buy

    If sales are forecasted to be $90k, …and food sales are historically 75% of overall sales, …and my target food cost is 29%, my “open-to-buy” is $19,575. This means I should spend no more than $19,575 on my ingredients. Of course, you will have a “belly” (food on hand in the cooler and on the shelves) but if you are maintaining a disciplined inventory level (your beginning and ending inventories are very close week in and week out) they will cancel each other out leaving your open-to-buy at $19,575. When you track purchases and know your open-to-buy, you’ll see when you’re approaching your limit and will be able to identify when and why you went over (you bought a case of Roquefort cheese which has a long shelf life but it’ll be in your belly for a few weeks and will not become part of your usage). If you don’t forecast sales, and you don’t know your target food cost (see below @ “Dog/Star”), and you don’t use a declining balance sheet (checkbook-esque) to record what you spend, you’re flying blind, and are relying on dumb luck.

  5. Menu Item Movement Tracker

    How do you know how many Harvest Chickens to have ready for your Wednesday night shift? Do you just wing it and go by “feel”? You’ll do a decent job with this method but it relies on individual talent and is not a system. We say have your closing sous chef for each shift record how many of each menu item was sold for each shift at the end of each shift. Your sheet should have a column for each day of the week with rows for each day part. When setting production for Harvest Chickens, the person setting production should look over this sheet to see how many are sold each Tuesday. If over the past 10 weeks you sold 19, 20, 21, 18, 17, 21, 25, 23, 19, 17, then you should make sure you have a number of Harvest Chickens that is on the high side (so you don’t run out)…say 25 or 26…but not 50!. Why have 50 on hand if the max you sold in the last 10 weeks is 25?

  6. Order Guides w/ Pars

    When it’s time to order groceries and meats, we often see chefs and sous chefs grab a sheet of blank paper from the printer and head into the walk in to write down what they need. This scribbled-on order is then either entered into the vendor’s website order system or called in to the sales rep. This is very sloppy and doesn’t control inventory. An order guide should show “on hand” for each item…or how many quarts of cream do you have, for instance. Staying with the dairy example, you probably get two orders a week – one ordered Monday for Tuesday delivery (slower) and one ordered Thursday for Friday delivery (busier). Record how much of each item you should have on hand to get through that period of time as a “par” or “build-to” amount. Lastly, you should show usage for each item…which is the amount the restaurant consumed between orders. If the par far exceeds consumption, your par is too high. You should order items based on the difference between what you have (on hand) and what you should have (your par). Your goal is to be reaching for the last quart of heavy cream as the Sysco truck is pulling with another delivery (just-in-time delivery). By recording On Hands, Orders, and Usage, you are keeping an organized record of what you order week in and week out so you can tweak your pars to reduce inventory. There are two additional benefits: a) when you don’t have excess inventory, it’s easier to catch internal thieves as missing inventory is easier to spot when it goes from 4 to 0 vs from 50 to 46..and b) your order guide becomes your “purchase order” for the employees who check the vendor orders in. This last one is important because we see so many kitchens where the person checking in the order only checks what is on the hand truck with what is on the invoice…instead of first checking to make sure that what is on the invoice matches what is ordered. Restaurants spend a lot of money on software to manage purchase orders when really a simple system like this will mostly accomplish the same thing at no extra cost or headache.

  7. Production Guide w/ Pars

    While the Menu Item Movement Tracker will tell a chef the velocity of menu items, each item may have several recipes for component parts (the menu item Spaghetti and Meatballs probably is made from 3 or 4 sub-recipes). We see a lot of chefs post items on a whiteboard with an amount they’d like the team to produce, hailing the whiteboard prep list as a “team effort”…when truly it’s an unorganized free-for-all where employees gravitate to knocking out the easy items first, leaving the complex or undesirable recipes to the last. There is a built-in incentive to work slowly and let the next guy do it…with no direct accountability for finishing the list. Instead, write prep lists for each station, where the chef spreads the work evenly across prep and line positions. I’ve seen some kitchens that take it a step further and put estimated times-to-completion next to each item, tallying them to a “total time” which implies a target level of efficiency and incentive to move faster. Regardless, when a cook is responsible for an item, they are accountable when the line check turns up that they didn’t follow a recipe. Coaching becomes easier and food tastes better when someone is accountable for results.

  8. Critical Item Count System

    Tracking waste is a waste of time. What are you really accomplishing by writing down that you burned something? What if a cook is hungry and eats something…and doesn’t write it down? Who is going to know? Instead, use a critical count system. Back to Harvest Chicken, if a sous begins their shift with 28 items and end the shift with 6, we KNOW that 22 Harvest Chickens left the building. We hope they were all sold…but the sous chef will verify that that’s the case. If the item movement report from the POS system says that 5 were sold, they can grill the cooks to find out what happened to the missing Harvest Chicken. This kind of inspection will mostly eradicate grazing on expensive items. For shrimp, count each one…once at the beginning of the shift, and once at the end…then jive it with the number of shrimp sold. (145 shrimp to start, sold 20 Scampi’s @ 6 shrimp per Scampi = 120, should be 25 left…but there’s 20 left…so “guys we’re missing 5 shrimp…where’d they go?”). Do this with beer (to make sure bartenders aren’t ringing in Bud Light but giving away Stella…etc). Do this for your critical menu items like proteins or portion bags of goodies for pasta dishes. The same report the sous uses to track Menu Item Movement (item 5 above) is used to record this information. The sous chef should not just be cleaning up and leaving the building…no no…they have an administrative task at the end of every shift.

  9. Dog/Star Analysis Tool (theoretical food cost)

    You read somewhere that food cost should be 30%. But what’s YOUR menu’s food cost? What’s the best it can be if there is no waste? Using your recipe costing software, you’ll know what each item costs. Your POS tracks how much of each item you sold. Your menu tells you how much you charge for each item. Loading all of this information onto a simple spreadsheet (math math math), you’ll know that number…it’s called your “theoretical food cost”. Add 3 percentage points to it for an acceptable range of shrink (industry standard for waste, not scraping every ounce of mayo from the tub, soup that reduces in the hot well, etc.) and you have your ACTUAL TARGET food cost…not some arbitrary number you found in an article. Judge a chef’s performance on THIS number. Set up a bonus structure based on hitting THIS number. Set your budget based on THIS number. Going a step further, you can use the relationship between sales and costs for each item to identify Dogs (low sales, low margin), Stars (high sales, high margin), Work Horses (high sales, low margin), and Challenges (low sales, high margin). Use this tool to adjust your menu once a month or once a quarter. It sounds cool to say you’ll look at this every day or every week but what frequency of menu changes will your customers really tolerate? All the more reason to make smart decisions using this tool once a quarter so you don’t need to revisit it so often.

  10. Labor Templates for Every Sales Level

    Food cost and labor cost are a restaurant’s biggest money pits @ 55% to 65% of net sales. Controlling labor is vital to the health of the restaurant. The GM and the Chef should review sales ranges throughout the year and decide on thresholds where labor needs to change to properly service the business. When sales are between $65k and $70k, for instance, labor can be the same but once you go past $70k you know you’re getting too busy to run with 2 prep cooks and need to add another. Be scientific about this process and back into the number from sales. At $65k per week, if the hourly kitchen labor target is 11.5%, then the target dollars are $7,475. Using a simple labor template spreadsheet that converts a schedule with wages into hours and total dollars schedule, work and rework the schedule to deliver $7,475. Department heads always want more labor …but their limit is their limit, so they must figure out how to get there, even if it means shifting some spots to part time or staggering in-times. Armed with different templates for different volumes, when sales are forecasted, the chef can apply the corresponding template (that was massaged and finagled ahead of time in collaboration with the GM) to use for scheduling. This way achieving labor targets is programmed on the front end instead of chasing it through cutting labor as you go …which irritates employees and turns to “cat and mouse”…another reason to program production (item 7 above) versus using the whiteboard.

  11. Manager’s Operating Statement

    QuickBooks is great for taxes but a calendar month P&L isn’t really helpful for seeing how you’re doing on a periodic basis, let alone a weekly basis. Using a fiscal calendar (5 periods + 4 periods + 4 periods = 1 quarter), we can stabilize inventory counting by counting on the same day of the week every month vs. whenever the calendar month ends. This allows us to inject routine into forecasting and ordering within your open-to-buy parameters…and to see if spotlight problems. As you know, beginning inventory + purchase – ending inventory = cost of goods sold. If your theoretical cost (dog/star + 3%) says you should be hitting a 29% COGS but your cost of goods calculation (which shows what ACTUALLY happened) reveals a 28.5% COGS, then your chef is on fire! She or he will know they’re nailing it. The GM will know they’re nailing it. A bonus can be paid to reward it. Everyone is happy.

Not only do you not need big IT solutions to manage your restaurant operation, but you’re potentially at a disadvantage when you do because food is not as predictable as a widget. Each cow is slightly different, customers are fickle, good employees steal without knowing they’re really stealing (grazing), commodity prices change like the wind, new cooks burn food, etc. It’s not Texas Instruments…it’s a food production facility built to produce food ala minute for customers sitting in your dining room. Big IT is only as good as the input it receives, requiring additional labor to make sure the data is clean while constantly varying data turns a good intention into a bigger headache than it resolves. You can add technology to make each of these systems better but not before locking down each of them in their simplest form. From there you can replicate them through careful software applications that don’t destroy the original intent. And if that shiny enterprise system that promises to streamline your operation isn’t delivering COGS + Labor below 60% to 65%?… unplug it and go back to the No.2 pencils and clipboards until you get it sorted.