Why Kitchen Software Has Its Place

It’s nothing new to say that the restaurant business is hard work. The Chef’s job is particularly difficult as they are accountable for commodity procurement and receiving, end product retailing and final consumer use. In this business, “work smart, not hard” has become the battle cry for the last fifty years, but far too many have latched onto technological advances to tackle the “smart” part. What I see lately is an over-reliance on function-bloated software. For example, reduce food cost by 5%, let hand held bar coders streamline the inventory process, POS to [costing software] sales Interfaces for automatic reordering.

I have not run across too many chefs who will disagree with me (and I run across a LOT of chefs) when I say: When it comes to running systems in a professional kitchen, there is no substitute for a no. 2 pencil and a clipboard.

Food is not a widget and cannot be wholly predicted, but a good chef develops a relationship with food that can tell him more than any spreadsheet or performance metric. Treating food like a non-perishable commodity won’t yield results with your customers or your bottom line. At Best Buy, the DVD player is either on the shelf or it isn’t. It comes in the back door at one price, moves out the front door at another price and the delta between what should have been earned versus what was actually earned is called shrink. In a restaurant, the difference between shrink and a varying yield% is not always easy to see.

Your employees feel entitled to your raw products. They’ll concoct unimaginable noshes with your raw products or nibble on bits and pieces from your finished products… and when they’re full, they’ll cash in on your meal benefit by proudly assembling dinner-to-go in one of your 75-cent Bio Pak containers and a 78-cent handled bag (to make it easier to carry home). Strictly controlling “theft” is difficult, primarily because popping the unusable end of a cucumber into your mouth versus throwing it in the trash or storing on the “use first” shelf is both hard to catch and hard to explain. Remember, they’re not stealing. It’s food and they’re only taking a little bit… and you’re going to throw it away anyway right? Try that with a CD or pack of batteries at Best Buy and black helicopters will come out of the sky and take you away. For that matter, in what other industry do their employees feel entitled to consume component parts AND finished sellables?

What about yield? There’s no such thing as “yield” with the DVD player on the shelf at Best Buy because the manufacturing plant is in not the same as the retail facility. When the DVD manufacturer uses a CAD program and laser cutter to mass produce the DVD player’s spring door, they know precisely how much plastic is used to produce the door and how much is wasted… accurate to withing a fraction of a gram. In a restaurant, perishable commodities come in the back door… not plastic sheets or metal bolts. Beef tenderloin yield is at the mercy of a cow’s DNA, the butcher that trims it, the house that packs it (how much blood do you get for your money?), the prep cook that trims/portions it, the ovens that cook it (calibration vs. protein water release rates at varying temps) and the skill of the line cook that prepares it for the table. How about pasta? Cook 40 lbs of Penne for an extra 30 seconds and the extra water absorbed in the pasta can alter the dish’s cost value . Heck, any variance in straining practices and the sub recipe for cooked pasta is shot!

A chef can use software to come up with “ballpark” or “industry standard” yields that are very helpful for planning. However, relying on your shiny new food costing software to tell you how much pasta or tenderloin you’re supposed to have on hand and your automatic reordering system and theoretical food cost calculators will read false positive for “chef error” triggering a “FIND IT!” frenzy. Bake in things like shelf life, knife skills, storage and rotation, cross contamination, grazing employees and your fancy software is costing you money, demoralizing your chef, and sending your accountant on a witch hunt. Wasn’t this software supposed to save you money? Like it or not, your chef has to monitor every stage of production of every commodity, every day, all day. Stuff them in the office behind a computer and tell me how the French Onion Soup turns out because a he didn’t catch the prep cook eye-balling the Worcestershire sauce.

I’m not saying that food costing software, theoretical cost analysis, automatic production forecasting, critical meat and seafood count spreadsheets, auto-populating inventory programs, automatic reordering systems and receiving-to-purchase-order systems don’t have their place. They do. They can (and should) be layered on as tools to enhance a chef’s heuristic capacity…but only after the chef is fluent with updating their inventory sheets weekly, trimming their own tenderloins and calculating yield, manually jiving meat usage with quantity sold, collaborating with GM weekly and daily to forecast production to sales, and knowing precisely why his food tastes good or why it doesn’t.

Too many companies today are trying to build the machine so they can hire that kid from Stride Rite who was fitting Buster Browns to my 8-year-old last week to be their chefs. Until our customers develop a taste for Soilent Green, we’re in the food business.

Cooking is a skilled profession. As long as food comes from the earth, it will take an organic mind to manipulate it effectively. Clothing fashion from the 60’s and 70’s was choked with synthetics (chemically engineered fabrics) in the name of “improvement”… not because they made better products, but because their proud zealot creators successfully dethroned cotton to get rich… and we bought it because it was shiny and new. Today cotton is back on top…oh and it’s from the earth. She/He who knows when to introduce technology and how much to introduce will be the victor.   As I grow older, I’m less inclined to use the word never… but I have no fear using it here: We will never see the day when a program or a machine or a robot or a calculator will completely replace the talented chef when it comes to delivering food cost, a compelling menu, and an enjoyable dinner out. If you want to crush your competitors, quietly put away that software program, buy some clipboards and no. 2 pencils, and let your chef get back in the kitchen… with the food.

Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting

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