The Main Course

You've created this beautiful space, have all your tools in place, and you are now getting ready for the main course—the food. This is the next level of research, so grab that yellow legal pad, notebook, or device and get ready.

Always remember: when you make these choices, you are going to make some wrong decisions; but have faith and keep moving forward. Don't let misjudgments slow you down.

Meet with the chef or cook, and really go over your menu. Write down everything that's in every dish, from salt to racks of ribs to heads of lettuce, and how much you need of each item. You've taken photos of your ingredients, and you have ideas for how to present each dish. The one point you need to realize is that you only have one chance to make a first impression. You have dazzled your customers with your staff, the menu, and the atmosphere. Now comes the headliner, so to speak: the food.

This Is Not a Trip to the Grocery Store

You need to meet with suppliers and vendors again to show them your menu, pictures, and list of ingredients. These account executives and vendors work the front line of the industry, meeting with restaurateurs daily. They know what food items are selling and what trends may have fallen flat. You can then look at the pricing and the cost structures. Suppliers and vendors will share information with you, but remember they are not your friends. Do not share all of your information with them or complain—that is only for your most trusted family members and friends. Keep it pleasant, and work on your orders. Stay transactional. I have become friends with many of our vendors in the past, and complaining about other vendors or products to them has only come back to bite me. The vendors have raised prices on me, knowing I had no other reliable resource to purchase a product or an ingredient.

Distributors such as Sysco (Sysco.com), US Foods (USFoods.com), Nicholas and Company (NicholasAndCo.com), and Chef Warehouse (ChefWarehouse.com), as well as food brokers in your city, will allow you to use their kitchens and prepare every item from your menu. They have chefs on staff who can develop recipes with you. Use this advantage. You will probably order the majority of your food from them, since these companies are the largest food distributors. If your city has a Restaurant Depot (RestaurantDepot.com), go in and introduce yourself and sign up for an account. I find that although they don't offer a lot of support, their products are excellent, and their prices are amazing.

If you want desserts such as ice cream, cakes, and pastries, these distributors offer them frozen. You can also purchase these items from Restaurant Depot, which will allow you to pick and choose your items right out of the warehouse. I like this option because it allows you to make choices on the spot to offer special items and unique desserts.

Sometimes distributors don't provide an item you'd really like to offer your customers, and you have to turn to Plan B. For example, I spent months looking for a birthday cake. Yes, a simple iced birthday cake that I could have cut into pieces and sell in my hamburger spots. This was one time that my creativity got the best of me. Who would have thought that you couldn't buy a simple birthday cake from a distributor? I had to turn to local wholesale bakeries to get what I needed, and it worked out wonderfully. They even ended up supplying us with less expensive hamburger buns. My research paid off.

Why did the local bakery offer me a lower-priced staple for my restaurant in conjunction with a supply of birthday cakes? They wanted that sale, and they wanted continuing orders. If you are successful, your distributors have a returning client with a thriving business. These companies have been in business for decades, and they know what works and what doesn't work.

Stay in the Home Court with Perishables

When you are ordering perishables, I recommend using a local vendor because they're already working on the shipping, and they're bringing in the units. Along with national distributors such as US Foods, Sysco, and Nicholas and Company, there are local distributors as well. The key is to get the food as fresh as you can at the least cost to you.

The food has to meet your requirements. What if something is wrong with the shipment of food? A local contact with whom you have developed a relationship will help you. If you ordered a case of tomatoes and 30 of them are bad, but you purchased them from a distributor three states away from you, you probably won't get any replacements, and you have to eat the cost of those bad tomatoes. Make a smart decision, and don't be penny-wise with fresh products.

Fresh Is More than Fruits and Vegetables

As much as you should love what you are doing, you are probably a little overwhelmed about both time and money. You are studying your menu and maybe thinking to yourself that you can save money and time using canned items.

I always advise using fresh whenever possible. Customers know the difference. I recently ordered wonton soup at a Chinese restaurant, and I knew they used a powdered broth. I can tell the difference, and I won't reorder it. Your customers appreciate fresh. However, you may need to use imported products such as canned European Italian tomatoes or jarred olives from Greece.

When you purchase canned or bottled prepared food items, make sure they are going to save you time, but don't compromise on flavor. While time is money, it can also cost less to make soups, sauces, dressings, dips, French fries, and other items from scratch, since buying the ingredients in bulk makes them less expensive per ounce.

Is Frozen Food Still Tasty?

Frozen food may save money, but make sure it never defrosted in transit. I've seen problems with frozen foods used at different restaurants. When purchasing patties of ground beef or cut up chicken, I found a lapse in the freezing, meaning the food was not frozen from processing to delivery.

For example, you can buy corn at the grocery store and open the package, and find that the corn is stuck together in a block of ice. This means the package of corn was defrosted and frozen again. Since the corn is going on your dinner table, you can return it and get another package. But when you are serving paying customers, you don't want a whole order defrosted and frozen again.

If you buy frozen, make sure it is flash-frozen, and order from vendors with an impeccable reputation. You can ask those in the hospitality industry as well as get recommendations from other chefs and restaurateurs.

Special Isn't Always Special

Don't get carried away with unique ingredients that are hard to find, or that only a few vendors carry.

I created a milkshake for one of our restaurants, and I used Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup. I grew up with it on the east coast, and I loved it. I wanted to introduce it to the west coast, but nobody carried it. I couldn't find it anywhere but online. It was available in grocery stores, but I needed the commercial size.

The flavor was great, but if I didn't monitor the case lots coming in and out, we would sell out; and I couldn't switch to using another brand (remember consistency). This was added work—and since time is money, it was an additional cost to me. What I should have done, and am now advising you to do, was taste different chocolate sauces that were readily available to me and use the brand I liked best. The customers would have probably loved that milkshake as well. This time, I admit my ego was saying I needed to use only this chocolate syrup. I now know that I needed to source chocolate syrups. By the way, we did end up making the shake in other locations using a well-known brand, and it was a hit with the customers.

Living Off the Land

A big buzz term in the restaurant industry (since it is more than one word) is farm-to-table. Food is cooked from locally sourced ingredients, usually organic. While millennials might believe they created the farm-to-table trend, it has really been around since the late 1970s with the counter-culture movement (better known as hippies). The farm-to-table trend began with the development of member-based co-ops that made fresh produce and other natural food available to be purchased in areas outside of farming communities. In the 1980s, urban gardens were developed in the heart of many big cities. Home gardens followed, with tutorials on how to grow tomatoes and other plants in window boxes and on balconies.

What makes farm-to-table all-encompassing today is that the movement is now mainstream and part of our vernacular and dining experience.

If you want to source things locally, that doesn't mean going to the store and buying them locally. The term means the food has to be grown locally or comes from a farm. It is amazing what has become popular due to the farm-to-table trend. A great chef said to me that heirloom tomatoes used to be ugly tomatoes that were thrown away. The tomatoes were then given a fancy name, and now everybody wants them on the table.

Is this something you should be looking into for your restaurant? Well, it depends. If you want to have a very fancy place, be politically correct, and spend additional money, then you can consider adding farm-to-table items to your menu. If you are on a very tight budget, and you are offering, for example, burgers, you can add fresh tomatoes and other produce without spending a lot of money.

It does cost a little more to use farm-to-table food, including produce, meats, and other food items. You would think it shouldn't cost more because if it's local, there are no shipping charges, storage fees, up-charges, and distribution costs. But with additional farm taxes, the food becomes a little more expensive. I have always heard that it costs more to eat well. If you're going to spend more money to buy food, you have to charge more and make sure it is better.

If you promote your restaurant as local farm-to-table, make certain you only serve local farm-to-table ingredients. For example, let's say you run out of tomatoes, and you contact your local distributor to purchase more. Your customers believe your tomatoes are farmed locally, which means the tomatoes were grown and purchased from a local source. Yes, all tomatoes are grown on a vine with their roots in dirt (or hydroponically). However, if someone finds out you bought tomatoes grown 400 miles from your restaurant, crisis control can become your number-one priority if they make it known publicly. People take listing and promoting ingredients as local farm-to-table very seriously. One mistake involving perceived or real deception can destroy your reputation (and that of your restaurant).

You or someone from your team needs to physically visit the farms where you buy your locally sourced food. There is a great deal of scrutiny today, especially with restaurants, and you don't need any questions or complaints about serving food labeled locally sourced or farm-to-table when the food was transported long distance.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Chef Kerry Simon Did Farm-to-Table Right

One of the amazing things you can do as a restaurant owner is to change things like adding daily specials. I learned a lot from the late Chef Kerry Simon, who loved the earth, grew herbs, and worked magic in his kitchens. He sourced many ingredients and always made the right decision when it came to food.

Chef Kerry never put the words farm-to-table on any of his menus. But if he got in a shipment of pears, he would make a great pear salad, and it was on the menu until the pears ran out. He was fun that way. Doing this can add revenue to your restaurant since customers love new, limited-time items.

A Real Farm-to-Table Experience

A great way to increase your revenue is to change the menu and give the customers something unexpected. This also helps create repeat customers. A great example is a farm-to-table restaurant, Thomas Hill Organics Bistro & Wine Bar in Paso Robles, California. Everything is organic, and the experience is mind-boggling. Regular customers know that the menu changes to showcase the bounty grown on California's central coast. The restaurateur and chef also work with California purveyors to supply beef, lamb, poultry, fish, and game meat, and local artisans bake the loaves of bread. Some of their customers eat there three days a week.

Roofs and the Desert Become Green (Without Envy)

While urban gardens have been around for decades, with advanced technology, there is now urban commercial farming. Greenhouses are springing up in the desert, and urban farming has taken over rooftops in New York City. I think this is fun, and I want to support the movement.

But when you are just opening your restaurant and you have a budget, you would need to charge more for this food because it will cost more. If you plan to open a high-end restaurant, utilizing those resources will make a difference. But if you are opening a hamburger place and you want to use local urban farm–grown tomatoes from the rooftop of a building in Manhattan, be prepared. The tomatoes will probably cost three times more than from a distributor, and you will have to charge more for your hamburger. In this case, I advise against using the tomatoes because it may not be worth the price increase for success. However, if you really want to support this kind of farming, you can always negotiate by talking to the urban farmers and see what deal you can make. This would certainly be great for marketing and giving back to the community.

Isn't a Farmer's Market Locally Sourced?

The short answer is that you don't really know the answer. You could go to the local farmer's markets and source from there. But unless you visit the farm, how do you know what you're getting? You can go to a farmer's market and buy all of a vendor's apples and tomatoes. However, some of the vendors could have just purchased them from Sysco, US Foods, or a local produce wholesaler. I am not saying this is true of everybody who sells at a farmer's market, but you just don't know until you visit the farm.

A Well-Stocked Pantry

As for nonperishable food items, I like to source them from the internet and e-commerce vendors such as Amazon, eBay, and webrestaurant.com. These sites have saved me a lot of money. There are membership stores such as Sam's Club and Costco, as well as Smart & Final retail stores. I am a huge fan of Restaurant Depot. Amazon and eBay even offer a commercial division. Of course, you should have been doing research, so ordering your items is just finalizing your list.

While you can order dry and canned goods online, you have to be very careful to check the expiration dates. While e-commerce vendors monitor dates, you also need to watch the dates and check for damaged cans. Ultimately, it is your responsibility.

You also need to be very careful about authenticity. Maybe you love a great European tomato, San Marzano, and order it from an Italian distributor. First you need to check the seal on the container to be sure it comes from the European Union. Then you need to check the dates to make sure the tomatoes have not expired or will not expire in a short time. Of course, there is the expense of shipping and importing the product.

You need to be vigilant when it comes to canned products, especially from out of the country. An advantage of working with a local distributor is that there might be less expense involved, and they will work with you if something is wrong with the product.

Good Flavor Can Be Worth the Extra Expense

Many times you can use a canned product like tomatoes and create a wonderful flavor palate. Sometimes you want to spend a little bit more to get the right flavor because then people are going to buy more of your food.

A perfect example is an Italian restaurant I recently visited. The owner obviously spent a lot of money decorating the place, and it was beautifully laid out. We sat down, and a hot basket of bread was brought to our table. My mouth was watering from the aroma, and my eyes appreciated the beautiful presentation. Then our server poured the olive oil with balsamic vinegar, and I was ready to begin my meal. I carefully dipped the bread into the olive oil and balsamic and tasted it, and it was watery. I know balsamic.

This was my first time at the restaurant, and this was my first taste of the food. I knew a server who worked there, and I asked him what brand of balsamic they used. He responded that it came out of a big plastic jug. I knew it was a generic balsamic.

You might think I was too picky. But first impressions are crucial, and then the subconscious comes to the surface. I chastised myself for being petty (and I am in the industry), but my subconscious kicked in, and I realized I never wanted to eat there again.

The bread and olive oil were delicious, but this is a poor way to make a first impression with a first bite of food. If the owner had purchased a higher quality balsamic, it might have increased his cost by $5 per bottle. But that $5 would have ensured a great beginning to a wonderful meal, and the expense would be minimal compared to getting another loyal customer to add to that list of 3,000 paying customers I recommend for success. I could taste that the olive oil was good quality along with the fresh bread; but mixed with cheap balsamic, the owner missed that flavor profile by being penny wise and pound foolish.

Be Consistent with Every Dish Every Time

While I have made a case for using fresh whenever possible, now I will explain why you can use canned ingredients and remain consistent while serving great food.

Let's use as an example a restaurant that's open for breakfast. You and the chef want to make sausage gravy from scratch to serve on chicken fried steak and biscuits, even though it is not a family recipe. You create the right flavor with the right amount of sausage and spices, and the gravy is a hit. However, the chef, cook, or you really have to watch that pot of gravy on the stove because it can begin to burn, and when that happens, the whole batch is ruined.

After you burn it a few times, you discover you don't have enough ingredients to make more gravy. What if there is a big demand for a dish with your gravy? You can't switch to canned ingredients, because customers will be able to tell the difference. Customers then will not trust anything that is served and will find someplace else to eat. Do I need to remind you about reviews and posting on social media?

Now, if you start with a can and add seasoning, spices, and herbs, you can make the gravy taste amazing. Ask distributors and brokers for recommendations, try every single one so you know what flavor you want, and then mix it with your herbs, spices, and seasonings. If the brand you like best is a little more expensive, it is worth the cost. You can keep a supply of cases of the #10 cans, and you will never run out.

You can also use premade items such as ketchup and add your own ingredients like mustard seeds to make it uniquely your own. I saw this done a very high-end steak house, N9NE at the Palms Casino Resort, which was at the time the go-to spot for celebrities visiting Las Vegas. Chef Barry Dekake actually used a brand-name ketchup with added mustard seeds, served in a small ramekin with their hand-cut French fries. It was a brilliant display of adding value and flavor to a product used in many households.

Another big seller is marinara sauce. Unless this is the main ingredient of your recipe (like grandma used to make), vendors might offer premade marinara in a can; or, as I discussed, you can use canned Italian tomatoes instead of fresh tomatoes. Yes, it is more time-consuming to make your own sauce. Test it and see if you can save time and money buying canned tomatoes and then adding your own spices, such as garlic and basil. As a restaurant owner, you're not going to have the time to stew and jar tomatoes, and canned European tomatoes are delicious.

If it's a pizza place, you can doctor up your pizza sauce, which is less expensive than relying on fresh ingredients. I know a restaurant that adds a jar of grape jelly to a canned pizza sauce. At certain times of the year, fresh may cost less, but out of season, buying those fresh ingredients can be more expensive. Then what are you going to do? Switch to canned tomatoes? You can't, because you need to remain consistent and either use fresh or canned tomatoes.

Just open that can, and get going. But be consistent.

Never Leave Your Shelves Empty

Now is the time to purchase your first inventory of food. You will need the advice of your distributors and your chef, who should be able to break down your inventory. Talk to your staff, because they know what they have and what they need.

When you first open, you can't forecast the flow of the restaurant or the food and supplies you will need. Even though you may need to buy larger quantities of food at one time from your suppliers, you don't want to overbuy perishables, because that will lead to spoilage and waste food (along with your money). You don't want to throw away money in the form of rotten tomatoes. You also don't want to under-order, because you don't want to run out of food for your customers. It's a fine line, but the only way you will know is by practice—I mean when your restaurant is open, and you can finally understand its flow.

Here are some simple ways to avoid waste:

  • Make sure you only purchase the ingredients that your restaurant uses.
  • Always keep the refrigerators and freezers at the right temperatures. Temperature control is essential for food safety, as it will prevent the growth of bacteria.
  • It is imperative to always have clean surfaces inside and out of refrigerators since cleanliness is vital for ensuring quality and preventing pathogenic bacterial growth.
  • Rotate inventory regularly. A common rule in the restaurant business is the FIFO rule First In, First Out, when storing food and displaying food for sale. The newer stock is behind the older stock, enabling the older stock to be sold first.
  • Always label your food correctly, especially if it is separated from the packaging for storage. Keep the labels clearly written with the date and name.
  • Inventory is essential, so always know what you have in stock at all times. Keep a detailed list of the foods in storage, including their use-by/best-before dates.
  • Always inspect your deliveries and make sure they include what you ordered. Only accept the items you ordered, and reject products with visible spoilage or damage that you will be unable to use.
  • Don't do any large-batch cooking before you know the demand for the dish; the food may not be sold before it goes out of date.
  • Use recipe leftovers efficiently. You might be able to make soup, croutons, or sandwiches.
  • Train the staff on these ways to reduce food waste as well.

You can break down the cost per the number of meals you want to serve, with a goal of earning $3,000 each day the restaurant is open. This is where you will learn to break down each meal to see the pricing per plate, the amount of food on the plate, your cost, and how many meals you predict you will sell.

When I was operating a simple burger place, I ran out of hamburger buns. How the heck could I let that happen? We were overwhelmed with business and did not track our inventory properly, since it is only logical to have the same number of buns as hamburgers. This is what happens when you don't prepare, plan, and predict. Be prepared to be overwhelmed.

The restaurant rule of thumb is that food should be turned over four to six times per month. Don't freak out when you hear the word inventory. Managing your inventory is vital to your restaurant and your profits. Have your managers do inventory reports at least once per week. Remember that ordering control will also free your cash from being tied up in unnecessary inventory. There are many benefits to truly knowing what the heck you have in stock or what you may be missing. You can also have the same manager do the ordering with the vendors, but keep in mind that you are ultimately responsible.

There is also software available that can help simplify the inventory task and keep you on track at the same time. If you don't want to go to the expense of buying inventory software, and if your POS system does not track any inventory for you, I suggest that you go online, search for “restaurant inventory management,” and download one of the many free templates that you can use.

Time to Start Rehearsing

Now you're going to create every single plate on your menu. What do the French fries, chicken barbecue dish, sandwich, and prime rib plates look like after they are created in your restaurant's kitchen?

Photograph each one and compare it to the photos you took of how you envisioned that dish. Work on it, and photograph it when that plated dish matches what you want to present to your customers. Then, list the ingredients and the recipe. There needs to be consistency with every chef and cook preparing that dish. You will have copies of the pictures hanging in the kitchen, along with the book of photos, ingredients, and recipes.

What if something happens with one of your purveyors, you can't get a specific ingredient, or something doesn't taste right? You want to change it immediately; and by preparing everything in advance, you know that the dish will still taste and look the way you envisioned.

How Much Is Too Much?

Here is a question to consider: how big should the portion sizes be that you serve?

When people decide to eat in a restaurant, those customers want value as well as great food. I believe that to be a good value, the food needs to be abundant. Sometimes abundance could just be a giant yeast roll, taking up half the plate and looking big and plentiful. It's not expensive for you, but it gives added value to your patrons. That's going to bring them back to your restaurant over and over again.

I always advise offering abundance when you're creating your menu. This doesn't mean losing money on meats and other high-price protein items. This means adding potatoes, vegetables, bread, rice, pasta, and other items that enhance the meal and fill up your customers.

Some ideas include cooking mashed potatoes with chunks of potatoes because while it fills the plate (and stomach), you're using fewer potatoes with cost savings.

An Example of Great Value

A friend of mine, Jim Reese, developed the Hard Rock Cafés with a team and many years later, spotted a winner, Hash House A Go Go, based in San Diego. Jim loved it so much that he took the concept national. People couldn't believe the quantity of food on their plates.

Let's break down the menu. The biscuits are double-sized, served with butter and honey; and because they taste so good, people start to get filled up on the biscuits. Then the food comes out with a huge sprig of rosemary standing in the middle of the plate as garnish. The plate is oversized, traditionally used as a serving tray, and filled with about 60% percent mashed potatoes. If chicken is ordered, the cooks pound it out so big that it crawls over the plate. If you happen to order a simple salad, it will come in a serving bowl most often used for catering large parties. While it is considered a moderately priced restaurant, people are full and take leftovers home; they are happy to get excellent value for their money. This equals lines out the door.

That's value, but that also comes back to the idea of your mission to open the restaurant. Details like abundance on the plate will drive people to return to your restaurant.

Your Cost Versus the Menu Price

Always consider the costs. For example, break down the cost for that piece of chicken. Customers don't want to pay an excessive amount of money for little value. This is where your chef or cook can help, because they know how to price food. But you need to make sure the cost of the food stays within a percentage of that plate. If you want to charge $10 a plate, to then make a profit, your cost for the food on that plate should not exceed $3. If you plate food that costs the customer $10 using $3 worth of food, but it looks like its value is $30, you understand the concept and are winning the game.

I doubt you would be reading this book if you wanted to open a nouveau riche place that presented a little morsel of food with beet juice swirled on a plate like a work of art and charged an obnoxious amount of money for that “plate.” Of course, I have seen chefs with reputations and a big ego open that kind of restaurant, only for it to close down. But you are reading this book, so I am working with you on building success.

Use One Meal to Market the Next Meal

As you develop your menu with actual costs, you also need to prepare your marketing strategy. I know of many steak houses with half-priced specials on Sunday or Tuesday nights that are packed on those nights. This is part of the restaurateur's marketing strategy. But you want to engage people and have them return regularly. Start writing down innovative ideas based on the menu, beyond Happy Hour, early bird, and lunch menus. Always keep in mind that these specially priced menus are a way for customers to sample your goodness and spread the word for your benefit. You see this daily with Indian luncheon buffets. Have you ever wondered why Indian restaurants don't offer buffets for dinner? It is because they want customers to come in for lunch and try the different items, so they feel comfortable ordering off the regular menu when they come in for dinner.

Pour Me Another One

Selling beer, wine, and spirits is a totally different business. I know many places that make 60% of their revenue from the sales of alcoholic beverages. The sales of beer, wine, and spirits need to be focused on properly since it is a different business within your restaurant business, especially if you want to offer a full bar. I'm not saying don't do it, but it's also going to cost more to include beer, wine, and/or spirits.

Still, liquor sales are another way to make money and can be included in your plan to open a restaurant. There is a potential for loss, such as if the bartenders over-pour or under-pour a drink. If someone doesn't like their drink, it gets poured out, and that is a loss. There are mixers, staff, bar equipment, cocktail menus, and insurances, which include extra costs. If you just want to offer beer and wine, do you sell by the glass, or do you charge by the bottle? Additional attorney's fees, licensing, and permits are required. There is pricing to consider. It really is another business.

My advice is that you focus on opening your restaurant first and then consider adding beer, wine, and spirits once the restaurant business becomes successful. You are opening a restaurant because you understand food, whether you are a chef, an entrepreneur, or both. For example, if you are opening a hamburger place, you know how to combine hamburger, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, sauce, and bun. You understand about the labor that it takes to make it, the plate to carry it out on, and the cost of the food. Focus on the restaurant, and in the future you can always add alcoholic beverages.

Dress Rehearsal

Finally, your kitchen and front of the house are complete, you have trained your staff, and everyone on the team has prepared and tasted the food and drink. Now is the time for a full dress rehearsal, just like in the theater. This is your production.

Plan a “friends and family night” so people can order off the menu and you can see how the restaurant will operate. These nights are fun for everyone who has shared your dream, even if you just talked to them about it. Dress rehearsals are always entertaining because you've already cast your entire theater. Think of “friends and family night” as attending a child's play in sixth grade.

You don't charge anyone for the food. I know some restaurateurs who work with charities to accept donations on those days. Offer everyone a chance to order off either the entire menu or a limited menu. Tell them to be patient, because your kitchen staff may not be up to speed at that point. There will be expenses for food, and you do need to pay the team. You want to do the best you can with food, service, and atmosphere. Once your friends and family leave, even though it's a dress rehearsal, they are going to tell people about your restaurant, and you don't want any negative reviews.

This soft opening is essential to determine how your kitchen flows without it being open to the public. You can correct any hiccups, receive valuable input, and see your team in action.

Are you ready to open a restaurant?

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