Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Knife's Edge: Ponzu scheme

Posted By on Tue, Mar 31, 2009 at 6:15 PM

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It’s the last day of our financial period. Our walk-in shelves are considerably barren, especially for a Saturday with 350 on the books. My sous chef will be working another double and working a station tonight to salvage labor cost a bit. We’ve scrambled around all afternoon, picking up enough provisions to get us through this one night. We are hoping, praying, gambling, that the 34 portions of scallops and halibut will sustain a busy night. But we need to run out, because they won’t be fresh enough to sell Monday after being closed Sunday. And we’ve already calculated that we need to do twelve thousand dollars in food sales to make our numbers.

Although the entire month yields the final result, as in any race, we kick extra hard as we near the finish line. Here’s my Tony Bourdain moment: Want a good time to not go to a restaurant? Try the very last day of their financial month. At around 9pm.

This isn’t what I fell in love with, for sure. I detest it. It’s the only part about what I do that I consider work. And the three days that we wait for the email from the accountant revealing our managerial efforts are sheer agony.

One or two percent in food cost can lose you a job as fast as a bad review. In this town, actually, faster. For a decently busy restaurant, two percent can mean 6-10 thousand dollars a month. That sounds different than two percent, doesn’t it?

A busy restaurant in Atlanta will purchase over ten thousand dollars in food a week. We sell a very fragile perishable thing, with a small window of peak quality. It’s not retail. We don’t have weeks to see if something sells. We can’t cut its price or move it to the clearance rack. Although, some would say brunch fills that role. Some are smart enough to use preventative maintenance. Pickles and charcuterie.

In all honesty, I’ve only just gotten good at this stuff, at responsibly managing a restaurant’s finances. It took a while to understand the balance. As chefs, we want to buy the best ingredients. And we also want to give value. That’s a food cost nightmare. Charge people what the ingredient’s worth? Easier said than done.

It’s hard to get the average diner to appreciate the difference between line-caught Pacific salmon and farm raised Chilean they can get for 2.99 at the grocery store.

It’s an ever so gentle balancing act.

So what does the restaurateur do? That owner who’s whipping around in his limited edition Jag? He rewards the chef for lower food cost. And what does that do for the quality of the product or the value?

Well, most people when approached with this simple reward system would, and do, buy the least expensive product. This is usually a lesser quality product. And the result...

Happy owners with nicer rides. Chefs with “big” bonuses. Shitty food at restaurants. And guests who feel as if they are (and are, in some cases) getting ripped off.

Not all restaurants reward chefs for food cost goals in this manner, but most do.

And if you don’t make that twelve thousand in food sales? Then the game begins. The counting and re-counting of everything. Realizing there’s salt in shakers, and citrus fruit at the bar. Oil in fryers, and even nitrogen on the back dock perhaps.

When we should be thinking about what’s available from the farm, or how to execute beautiful food better, the only thing being discussed is fudge.

Fudging the numbers, or inflating inventory is a notorious, ill-advised ploy to attempt to salvage bonuses, or even jobs. But that’s a dangerous game, and we’re not Bernie Madoff.

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