I had an interesting lunch with one of our high profile food critics a couple of weeks ago. This an unusual situation for me because I am not normally on the radar of the ‘foodie’ press, who are more interested in Restaurateurs and Chefs than Management Consultants. While the conversation was quite stimulating and I valued the insight their perspective gave me, one of the comments made during a wide ranging discussion left me a bit unsettled.
I made the comment that quite a few of my top end clients were battling with out-of-control food and wage costs at present and that they either had to put-up their prices or reduce the cost of food production to restore appropriate margins. It was generally agreed that putting up prices in a competitive market was not the ideal choice, as main courses were at about the optimum and entrée/dessert prices were often beyond the pale. A recent disturbing memory of three scallops on a plate with a bit of shrubbery for $21 drove my opinion on this matter.
Are you charging enough for your products?
I put forward the belief that the only way out for many of my clients was to reduce the labour content of their food production by identifying common tasks that were done in small quantities very inefficiently in their own kitchens and seeing if they could buy those items in a semi-finished state at a cheaper and consistent price, and thus reduce labour and wastage. Well, you’d think I’d committed an atrocity in church, judging from the reaction. ‘I expect everything to be made in their kitchens, and I would mark them down in a review if I thought they had bought an item in,’ said O Powerful One.
Don’t get me wrong; I’d love the situation where restaurants could all afford to do everything themselves in the traditional, handmade fashion. The reality, however, is that unless they can charge an eye watering amount for their food, they can’t afford to do everything by hand and keep their cost within limits. Something has to give eventually, and unfortunately it is often the owner who loses out — by going out backwards.
Before you Chefs reading this throw this magazine down in disgust, consider that Chefs have been buying-in products when it suits them for ages. Take butter and cheese for instance, I have rarely seen a restaurant make either. Most restaurants buy in bread, many buy desserts, and many buy portioned meat and fish. The list goes on, and on. These are all either finished or semi-finished products. Does the customer care if the onions were peeled on site or bought in already peeled? Does the customer care if a butcher cut their steak or the Chef? By the time your Sous Chef leisurely peels onions for half an hour while discussing the football or his latest conquest, those peeled onions have doubled in price.
Are you a farmer or a restaurateur?
How often have I been told ‘we grow all our own herbs out the back’. Yeah, and I’m the Tooth Fairy. Even I’m not stupid enough to believe that a three metre by two metre plot can produce anywhere near enough herbs to supply an 80 seat restaurant. Take basil, for instance. Most restaurants would need a couple of hectares just to keep the supply of basil coming. It’s fashionable to be green, it’s trendy to spout terms like ‘paddock to plate’. The press expect it, the public love it. Few live up to it.
If this kind of argument was consistent, restaurants should all have 50 hectares of grape vines and a bottling plant out the back, and a further 100 hectares raising cattle and poultry, and a dam full of fish; but this is patently absurd.
The truth is that commercial cookery at any level is a compromise between art and convenience. The key question is where do you draw the line?
The root problem here is that many chefs would rather send their employer out backward than lose a hat in the Good Food Guide. They know that if they lose their current job they can get another in a couple of days given our tight skilled labour market.
This has led me to advise my clients not to pay flat salaries to key staff who control costs, particularly Chefs, who control half of the money going through a restaurant. If you get the same amount of money if that restaurant is doing badly as you get when it does well, where is the incentive to manage within the bounds of commercial reality?
Chefs naturally place their emphasis where their self-interest lies. Being marked down in the Good Food Guide is more career damaging than driving your employer broke. It’s sad but true. If a restaurant gains a hat it is attributed to the Chef; if a restaurant goes broke it is attributed to the Restaurateur. The foodie press want ‘artisan food’, which is very expensive to produce, and most of the Chefs I deal with want to give it to them, at any cost.
I think it’s better to pay a base salary, plus generous bonuses for keeping the numbers under strict control. That way if the employer does badly, so will the Chef— and vice versa. It’s the only way I know to restore the balance between the interests of the employer and the personal interest of the Chef.
Mr Chef, you can do whatever art you want as long as the numbers are OK . . .