Memo to Chef: Nine Paths to Job Security

Maybe you got that gig by wowing them with clean flavors and inspired plating. But if you want to keep it, you must control “COGS”, the cost of goods sold. Travel these nine paths to job security every day you work. Teach your people to travel them with you. (You cannot undertake this journey alone and you’ll rarely find the needed skills in the new cooks you hire. You must nurture these skills.)

  1. Prioritize Creative Efforts
    If you are routinely costing your menu items (you must, and you must involve your team in doing this too) you know which items are the COGS Hogs. Draw Sales-By-Item reports weekly. The highest sellers with the lowest contribution margins are your COGS Hogs.  Make these your priorities to fix. Every chef in your kitchen (and any cook who aspires to be a chef) should be told which items are on your Hog List. They should know which items need creative modification and which items you would be willing to replace altogether. For replaceable items, encourage the development of new items with high perceived value: potential menu “Stars”. These items can be tested as specials. If they catch on, put them right into the next menu. Life is good for a young chef or cook when he knows his ideas got an item off the Hog List, or he replaced a Hog with a new Star.
  2. Measure and Pre-portion
    If your Actual COGS is higher than your Expected COGS, over-portioning is the first suspect. Especially of proteins and cheeses. Sometimes it’s a matter of getting the right tools. Make them part of your mise en place.   A scoop that makes a portion automatic pays for itself in a blink. So do good portion scales. Sometimes it’s batch portioning. And find better ways to protect pre-portioned ingredients so they don’t suffer. Kitchens with sous vide equipment rarely have COGS out of control.
  3. Get Fierce about Waste
    Recently I saw a chain kitchen where trash barrels were banned. Every station was issued a bus bucket instead. Those buckets could not be emptied without Chef seeing what was in them. At the very least, work one-on-one with every team member to instill the attitude that almost everything is useful food. Nothing edible is trash! Some salvage can go into soup, some into staff meals, etc. etc.. Another practice to consider in some settings: Replace black trash bags with clear bags. Have a place where filled bags can be held for viewing before you OK their disposal. Your closing hour procedures are critical: Is everything chilled down correctly, wrapped tight, etc.? I saw a kitchen in Burgundy where everything got cryovac treatment at closing – everything. Closers in a hurry to sign out too often make waste for everyone else the next day.
  4. Make Staff Meal a Training Device
    Staff meals can be a training ground for your team. Rotate responsibility for making them. Require they be cost analyzed. Besides being a morale boost for junior staff, it’s a learning opportunity re making interesting food with little to no cost. Challenge your people to use ingredients that would otherwise go to waste, work with miscellaneous sample items left by purveyors, ingredients from discontinued menu items, whatever. One way or another, make staff meals an exercise in COGS awareness.
  5. Know Menu Graphics
    You can influence the sales mix simply by an item’s placement on the page. You can highlight items you want to feature.  You can choose which items go at the beginning or end of a list. Put your COGS Stars where they are most likely to get selected. The chains operators have made a science of this “menu engineering.” Make your graphic designer a member of the COGS team. Tell him or her which items you most want to sell. A skilled menu designer knows how to help you.
  6. Surgically Raise Menu Prices
    While no-one likes to raise prices across the board, some plates are clicking so well that nothing will stop your guests from ordering them. Notch these items up. Observant servers and dining room managers know where the opportunities lie. Have this conversation with them regularly. Don’t be afraid to get paid.
  7. Gather Market Intel
    Recruit savvy servers and of course managers to obtain guest input for you.  In fact, nothing beats pulling on a clean chef jacket and spending time in the dining room yourself.  Probe guests about their experience of your plates. Do this multiple times weekly. Guests love meeting Chef, and you might be surprised by what you learn.  Are you are needlessly portioning your proteins too heavy? Perhaps appetizers aren’t ordered because taken together with popular entrees, it’s just too much food. Or perhaps certain apps have become de facto entrees. When you find that the most memorable thing someone ate was the polenta, and they would gladly have one less medallion, you know your time was well spent! Look, too, at plates going to the dish. You may be surprised at what guests leave on their plates.  You may see ways to reduce COGS without sacrificing guest satisfaction.
  8. Sell Catering, Events and Packages
    You can design really efficient meals, with exceptionally good COGS, suited to your image and facilities. What if a fixed price dinner for 10 or more, served family style on Sunday nights, proves to be a hit? Score! Test your ideas, learn which ones really work, and promote these heavily.  Should you have special offerings, Sunday and Monday night packages for football fans? Any time you can prep in bulk you can make the COGS calculation work.
  9. Manage your Purveyors
    If your grocer, your butcher, your seafood monger and your “fruiterer” (produce source) aren’t working for you, they should be replaced. Needless to say you should be pressing them to give you better pricing, to lock in prices on key volatile items, to compete for the lion’s share of your business, etc. etc. But are they thinking about what you need? Do they ever look at your menu? Do they ever hang with you when you expedite? Are they bringing you opportunities they can offer on deal? Are they introducing things you can use to plate a special with high perceived value and shockingly low cost? Are they bringing new tools to your attention that could help you portion reliably or preserve ingredients better? Note the quid pro quo is that you refer other operators to them.  Most importantly, pay your bills like clockwork. If you don’t, you have no right to expect to be top of mind for them.