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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Food Cost Control in Catering Operations

If you ask a wedding caterer for their menu, you will often be presented with several documents.  Most caterers in this field offer many options for every course.  The prospective guest may select a custom designed meal by making choices for each course (soups, salads, entrees, side dishes and desserts).  Generally, the guest is asked to choose from 2 to 3 selections for each category.

The selections available are usually extensive.  It is common to see over 100 menu items on a wedding menu.  In addition to the menu items, guests will often be served rolls and butter, coffee and tea, and all appropriate condiments.  Most wedding caterers run a food cost % between 20 and 25% of total revenue.  It is important to understand the revenue amount needs to cover many other expenses including beverages, decorations, music, flowers and direct labor.

A 20% food cost percentage in an operation with an average revenue per guest of $100 indicates each guest consumes $20 of food.  A common menu item served to wedding guests is beef tenderloin.  Many caterers allow 8 ounces of trimmed meat per guest.  If an untrimmed beef tenderloin sells for $12 per pound and we have a yield of 50%, each portion will cost $12.  This is 12% of $100.

Careful control of the beef tenderloin would help us achieve a 20% food cost % in our operation.

An operator who pays too much for the beef tenderloin may also purchase too much meat for the expected number of guests.  Every dollar per pound over budget equals 1% of additional food cost.  A 10% safety factor is often used by people purchasing food.  Final guest counts can be higher than expected but often the count is lower.  Caterers can require a minimum count for a particular event when the exact guest count is unknown.

Imagine we over pay for the beef tenderloin by $2 per pound and we purchase 10% extra weight.  The cost per serving skyrockets to $15.40 (Cost = 1.1 x $14).  This would send our food cost percentage up to 23.4%.  Add a generous level of over purchasing in produce and dairy products and it is very easy to imagine a 25% food cost percentage.

Suppliers want to maximize their profit.  You need to be precise when stating the specifications for the protein items served in your operation.  In my experience, wedding caterers spend from 8 to 15% of their food dollar on beef tenderloin.  Salmon, shrimp, chicken breasts, lamb racks and other expensive protein items are popular.  Work carefully with your suppliers to get the very best quality for the budgeted cost per serving of meat and seafood.

If you find your food cost percentage is increasing over time, look carefully for possible causes.  The following issues are 100% real and I witnessed each personally:

1)  Supplier charges a 20% up-charge for splitting cases.  The chef orders 6 pieces of beef tenderloin averaging six pounds each.  The warehouse has a box with 12 pieces and a small box with two pieces.  The price per pound is $12.  The salesman puts the orders in for the chef.  He orders one half of the 12 piece case (a split!).  The cost per pound is $14.40.

2)  The same chef orders 20% more meat than the expected count multiplied by one pound per guest.  Employees at the office are served cold roast beef tenderloin for lunch in lieu of burgers.

3)  A walk-in cooler in a kitchen specializing in prime rib has 7 partial ribs cooked to medium rare.  The policy is to restrict use of leftovers to alternate dishes including soups, sandwiches, salads, and side dishes.  These partial ribs have a total of 22 portions which were never served.

4) Alaskan salmon caught by line and shipped by air are served to guests.  The cost per serving is 30% over budget.

Since catering menus are often diverse with many different guest options, it is difficult to accurately estimate food cost without a professional food cost control solution.  If your operation is experiencing a high food cost percentage, you should consider the investment in a top notch system.

Examine your protein costs carefully and check all invoices for prices, extensions and quantities.  Compare the quantity purchased to the guest count.  Ask the chef for the expected yield for any large piece of meat or fish.  You can lower your cost the quickest by studying protein usage.

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