Dear Food Fanatic: Should I Buy Cheaper Ingredients?

Solid advice for the front- and back-of-the-house from our Food Fanatics expert

Q: My siblings and I are taking over our long-lived family restaurant. My brothers want to go cheap on ingredients and raise prices to make it more profitable. This feels knee-jerk to me. What’s your take? 

A: Improve what the restaurant has been doing, and don’t cut corners. Costs can be slashed numerous ways, which would also improve the bottom line. Take a hard look at labor (are slower nights overstaffed?), assess inventory (are you holding on to too much?) and review purchasing history (are you taking advantage of vendor promotions and buying seasonally?). Buy the best ingredients at a price point you can afford, and build on items with good food costs, like pasta and salads. 

Q. How in the hell do I get my employees to show up for work every shift?

A. Look for employees with a solid work history and implement a training program that helps new hires feel invested. Show appreciation for attendance with small incentives, like gift cards, comped meals and first dibs on premium shifts. Treating staff well produces loyal employees, ones less likely to pull a no-show. 

Q. Cooking with wood, charcoal and smoke is so popular, but I don’t have the room for that type of equipment. Are there alternative ways?

A. Get a smoking gun to infuse flavors into dishes, from woods and herbs to tea and spices.  Smoke can be added before cooking vegetables and proteins, or as a final blast of flavor. Use smoke to enhance brunch staples like eggs and cheese. Or raise the bar by infusing smoke into bloody mary mixes, salts and spirits, like bourbon. 

Q. I want to breathe some new life into my menu with global flavors, but I don’t have the labor to execute difficult dishes. What are some quick hit ideas?

A. How about sauces? A sense of global flavor can be achieved by adding a spiced up sauce to sandwiches, grilled meats and vegetables. Spike mayo with curry, ketchup with Sriracha and glazes with chilies. It can be as simple as getting the flavor on a dish rather than reinventing the recipe.

Q. How can I get my guests to order more wine?

A. Start with your servers. Choose wines you want to move, let staff taste them with paired dishes and brainstorm words to describe the characteristics. Know the winemaker’s story so your servers can share it with customers. Designate wine promotions on slower nights, which help familiarize customers with your list and may attract more customers. 

Q. Got any tips for making vegetarian dishes that aren’t boring?

A. Treat your vegetables like a protein, keeping it simple and planning ahead. Par roast vegetables or grill them to create visual appeal and flavor. It also allows you to create quick dishes that can be cross-utilized with nonvegetarian dishes.  Offer great grains or unique pastas served with spices, sauces and cheeses that make it look like you went the extra mile.


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Food Fanatics undergo rigorous culinary, communications and consulting training to help chefs and other foodservice professionals meet business goals.

Food Fanatic

Josh Hoellein, a Food Fanatics chef from Salt Lake City, Utah, is driven to advance the epicurean landscape.

@chefjhoellein

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