Dear Food Fanatic: Rising Costs, Spring Ingredients

Our resident Food Fanatic gives advice on dealing with tough restaurant problems.

Q. No one can shut up about the spring season. What’s so great about it? 

A. Aside from the fact the days are starting to get longer and warmer? For one thing, no more hibernating on root vegetables and proteins. All sorts of ingredients become available, including onions of all varieties, arugula, asparagus, peas, fava beans, morels, strawberries and lamb. You might not think this is a big deal because most ingredients are available year-round now, but buying in season, locally and stateside, is how people want to eat. At the very least, it adds freshness to the menu and something to celebrate and promote.

Q. We don’t have the space for a garden, but herbs seem do-able. Any suggestions on how to get started?

A. Restaurants really rake in benefits from growing their own herbs in-house. The staff will love the options an herb garden provides for daily specials, and it gives the front of house a nice story to tell guests. Herbs make for great landscaping and let you grow specialty varieties such as lovage, hyssop, lemon thyme and opal basil. Ask a local garden store or landscaper for help. There are also many resources online, including culinaryherbguide.com. When the garden is up and growing, assign watering and caring for the herbs to someone on staff.

Q. My chef just quit and we are up against one of the biggest weekends ever. What can we do in the short term to avoid crashing and burning?  

A. Don’t stick your head in the sand and pretend everything will be okay. Make a plan that starts with gathering the staff and asking for help. Maybe a promising prep cook can step up. Through word-of-mouth (or social media if you have a big foodservice network) bring in people for the interim, which can also be a nice try-out for a chef replacement. Be apologetic to diners for slow service or when dishes don’t hit the mark. Offer a complimentary dish or drink on the spot, or for when they come back for another visit. Most importantly, roll up your sleeves and do what it takes to help out, whether it’s peeling potatoes or expediting.

Q. Should I raise my menu prices in the new year?  What’s the outlook for food costs in 2014?

A. Moderate inflationary pressures are predicted based on the outlook for commodity prices and animal inventories, as well as a decrease in exports of many U.S. agricultural products. Take advantage of this. Restaurant owners and operators are always reluctant to raise prices but sooner or later, some of the rising costs have to be passed on. That said, do your research. If you didn’t increase prices last year, you should now. Consumers will pay the increase if quality and service warrant it. So keep the quality high and renew your commitment to great customer service.

Q. We want to make better use of the days we are closed. Ideas? 

A. Start by making a list of all the things you have been putting off and then prioritize. Do the walls need a coat of paint? Is the carpet calling for a scrub? Create a cleaning schedule with the staff so that everyone lends a hand and work doesn’t pile up. Finally, since the outside is the first thing customers see, give the landscaping a hard look and determine what you can do to add curb appeal.

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Food Fanatic

Aaron Williams is a Food Fanatic chef for US Foods from Los Angeles who’s thankful everyday for California’s long growing season.

@ChefAaronW

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