Planning for the unexpected is just as important as planning a menu – especially in 2022. Inflation is driving food prices to an all-time high, conflict in Europe is causing ingredient shortages and the coronavirus continues to circulate around the world, causing restaurant traffic to fluctuate drastically month to month.
“Sometimes the situation is just beyond your control,” says restaurateur Robin Wertheimer, “but that’s when you have to pivot.” Together with her husband, Chef Thomas Ferlesch, Wertheimer owns and operates Werkstatt, a casual Viennese restaurant in Brooklyn, New York.
Recent supply chain issues have wreaked havoc on Werkstatt’s day-to-day operations, according to Wertheimer. As part of their ode to Austrian cuisine, the couple primarily serves imported European beer. When her usual order of Hofbrau Original was delayed for months, stuck on the shipping container jammed in the Suez Canal, Wertheimer says she learned an invaluable lesson: “Stock up on non-perishable items whenever you can.” Now, Wertheimer stores extra kegs of the uber-popular beer just in case a U.S.-bound shipping container gets stuck mid-voyage again.
Stocking up on non-perishable goods is one of a few tried-and-true strategies Ferlesch, Wertheimer and other ace operators use to guard their bottom line against unpredictable challenges like inflation or supply chain shortages. Here are others:
1. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
“TALK TO OTHER OPERATORS IN THE AREA ABOUT THEIR MENUS, AND TRY TO STAY WITHIN THE BELL CURVE OF YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD’S AVERAGE PRICES.”
— Restaurateur Robin Wertheimer of Werkstatt
Every restaurant has its regulars and its crowd-pleasing dishes, and every chef should know what they are. If you’re new to the game, study the numbers. What are you routinely selling out of? What isn’t catching on with diners like you thought it would? Set up your operations software so that it integrates your point-of-sales data, and you’ll have immediate access to the information for planning with maximum profits in mind. If you’ve been in the industry for a few decades like Wertheimer and Ferlesch, you can rely on your instincts, too. “You get a pretty good idea over the years of what your days look like,” says Wertheimer.
2. GET SMARTER ABOUT ORDERING
“Your first step toward profit is how you do your ordering,” says Wertheimer. “If you’re no good at ordering, then your restaurant’s losing money from the get-go.” To avoid losses, prioritize dishes that use versatile and shelf-stable ingredients, and avoid delicate and highly perishable ones. For Ferlesch, that means saying no to avocados, which aren’t a traditional element of Viennese cuisine, but yes to Brussels sprouts as an appetizer and a side dish. It also means knowing what to do with an ingredient that’s got age on it. When tomatoes for a special menu item began to brown, he quickly pivoted and used the remainder of his order to make a red sauce.
3. MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR PURVEYORS
For small, independent operators, it pays to be close to purveyors. They often have information about product forecasting, crop yields and international agricultural output that you meant to research before menu planning got in the way. At Werkstatt, Chef Ferlesch’s fishmongers, whom he has worked with for decades, let him know what’s coming down the pike and what may not be available for a while. Better yet, they fill him in on potential disruptions, so he can plan his menu accordingly well into the future.
4. SAVE SPLURGING FOR SPECIALS
If you want to use highly perishable ingredients, save them for the section of your menu that’s based on what’s available seasonally. And when you’re putting together an order for a delicate, expensive ingredient like truffles, take care not to buy more than you can sell. “Waste is the worst thing you can do in a restaurant,” says Wertheimer. Worst case scenario: Not enough of an ingredient purchased, and the dish sells out. As long as it’s a special, diners will understand.
5. CHECK REFRIGERATION
“One thing I didn’t understand until I ran a restaurant is how long something will hold if it’s refrigerated properly,” says Wertheimer. “That’s why the health department exists.” State health inspectors typically follow FDA guidelines, which require refrigerators to be set at or below 40°F, but Wertheimer says commercial operators should set walk-ins to 38°F and freezers to 32°F. To ensure your ingredients stay fresh as long as possible, get them into cold storage immediately. “The faster they are sent down,” says Wertheimer, “the better they maintain.” It’s worth shelling out a few extra dollars for top-of-the line cold storage, because an unreliable walk-in will cost you in the form of spoiled ingredients. Also, since almost anything can be frozen, make sure cold storage is large enough to fit your needs – and when in doubt, size up.
6. DON’T SKIMP ON QUALITY INGREDIENTS
If, out of nowhere, the price of the organic chicken quadruples, don’t immediately start shopping for a cheaper alternative. “You’ll lose more money if you try to compensate by ordering a cheaper product,” warns Wertheimer. Diners, especially regulars, can distinguish fresh, quality ingredients from lesser ones. Instead of trying to recreate the exact dish, see if you can use other proteins like pork loin to come up with a similar profile. If not, consider switching out the menu item entirely and replacing it with a more affordable, high-quality ingredient.
7. WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, PASS THE COST ONTO YOUR CUSTOMERS
When inflation is on a tear and the price of everything is going up, there’s only so much you can do. “Sometimes you have to pass the cost on,” says Wertheimer, offering the reminder operators know all too well. “The profit margin in a restaurant is so slim. If you’ve tightened your operations and your costs are still on the brink of breaking 30%, it’s time to raise your prices.”
Your most loyal customers will understand, and new ones will shuffle in who don’t know the difference. Cost out the dish, and charge what needs to be charged. Most importantly, “just keep going,” says Wertheimer.