With the price of ingredients skyrocketing over the past two years and the situation only set to worsen after Brexit, Andy Lynes examines some creative ways to cut food costs
For chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers, the only certainties in life are death, taxes and rising food costs. However, over the past 12-28 months, the rate at which the price of ingredients has increased has become an ever-more painful thorn in the side of the hospitality industry.
“UK food prices rising at fastest pace for over five years”, read a headline in The Independent in April. As the article explained, last year’s extreme weather meant delays in planting crops due to the Beast from the East, followed by flooding and a summer heatwave affecting crop yields and causing a spike in the price of basics such as onions, potatoes and cabbage.
Anecdotally, chefs interviewed for this article spoke of recent spikes in the cost of dairy, French poultry and rabbits, premium fish, such as sea bass, and vanilla. The Metro, which reported that food inflation rose to “2.5% in March, up from 1.6% in February, the highest inflation rate since November 2013”, also warned that worst is yet to come, with British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson stating that “the ‘bigger threat’ of a no-deal Brexit would lead to higher prices”.
So what steps can chefs and restaurateurs take to alleviate the impact of price rises, without resulting in any deterioration in experience for customers? Given the diversity of the restaurant scene, there is, unsurprisingly, no panacea for the problem. There are, however, a number of strategies that can be adopted, although it’s worth remembering that what works best for you will depend on the size, nature and location of your business. What works for a provincial tasting menu-only restaurant outside of the capital may not be appropriate for a busy central London à la carte bistro, for example.
Something to count on
One measure every operator can take is to monitor costs. “The key is, entirely, to judiciously track purchases, inventory, ordering and waste,” says Nick Kokonas, co-owner and co-founder of the Alinea group of restaurants in Chicago, highlighting that the need to combat rising food prices is a global issue. “We were unsatisfied with the status quo of ‘check average’ divided by ‘food purchases’ as a measurement of success. I often hear that fine dining restaurants ‘should average 32%’ or some such number, but the truth is that that’s far too simple a measure. If one week you do 400 covers and the next 450, typically that percentage will go down, simply because you are busier. Instead, we track actual dollars by vendor and category and put everything weekly into a Marimekko chart. Then our chefs see this twice weekly and can visualise changes in ordering patterns and dollar spend per guest, without having to dig through accounts payable bills or spreadsheets.
“We then look for the ‘big boxes’ and negotiate everything, every week. Additionally, when demand exceeds supply, we require deposits or prepayment from guests. We can go to vendors and prepay them for expensive items like meat, fish, wine, truffles, etc, in order to guarantee the highest quality, mitigate the risk to the producer of default or late payments, and reduce our expenses by negotiating discounts.”
Not every restaurant will have the resources of an organisation like the Alinea group of award-winning restaurants (including the three-Michelin-starred flagship Alinea), and many chefs can find themselves torn between the demands of the stove and the spreadsheet and simply not have the time to keep a constant eye on costs. Building a relationship with suppliers can go a long way to help the situation.
“I’ve built up a lot of trust in suppliers,” says 2019 Newcomer Catey winner Paul Foster of Michelin-starred restaurant Salt in Stratford-upon-Avon. “My fish supplier, for instance, will phone me up and tell me what’s amazing that day and he won’t send me something if it’s too much for us. He’ll say, ‘you’re not going to want the turbot, it’s £28 a kilo today – that’s the cheapest I can do it, but I’ve got this or this’. I know they’ve got our best interests at heart, so I’m going to keep buying from them because I trust them. The relationship does really help and it saves me a lot of time.”
Anthony Demetre of Wild Honey St James and Vermuteria in London agrees. “Having a great relationship with a supplier is key. I’ve worked with a lamb supplier since my Putney Bridge days and she’s really fought to give me the best prices. French poultry and rabbits have shown a sharp increase, but source them elsewhere if you can. Get your local suppliers on board and tell them what you want and build up a relationship; you’ll give them the business and then it’s word of mouth. It’s a very small fraternity – the chef world – and we all speak. It’s all that network of information that we’re all constantly striving to work towards.”
“Don’t take your suppliers for granted,” says Thomas Griffiths of Flank, the fast-casual nose-to-tail concept with outlets in Old Spitalfields Market and Market Hall Victoria. “Invite them in for dinner and look after them; they’re your bread and butter. I’ve had the same suppliers for years and have got a good relationship with them. That’s key to getting the best products from a supplier and for them to be lenient on giving you things like pig’s heads for free, or throwing in bits and bobs that you can put on as a special.”
Keep it simple
Foster found that a simple change to his à la carte offering made a big difference to the restaurant’s food costs. “It was a 3-3-3 menu and we were offering a tasting menu as well, but we were finding wastage was so high because the tasting menu was so popular. I didn’t want to make the menus the same because that looks a bit lazy, so we had to remove a dish from the à la carte and make it 2-2-2 to cut our costs and wastage, because otherwise that cost would have had to go on to the customer, which could have priced us out of our market.”
At Crockers in Tring, Hertfordshire, limiting menu formats, seats and sittings means that costs can be tightly controlled. “We’ve only got 15 seats and we do one sitting for lunch and one sitting for dinner, so we do have the ability to closely watch everything,” says Luke Garnsworthy, who runs the restaurant with chef Scott Barnard. “We use a set menu approach, with a set tasting menu or set three-course lunch with no options. We know exactly how many covers we’re going to have each day and exactly what we need to order in. It keeps the costs down and the wastage is pretty much zero. My background is working in à la carte restaurants all over London and you can see when you’re in the kitchen how much food goes to waste.”
For chef Dom Chapman, tweaking the mid-week menus at his smart, rural Berkshire gastropub, the Beehive in White Waltham, has resulted in a 5% reduction in food costs over the past six months. “Monday to Thursday we keep a reduced menu – maybe a 5-5-5 or 6-6-6, and then towards the weekend, when its busier and people want to spend more money and are wanting to go out for a special occasion, we increase to 8-8-8 and put on the turbot and the lobster and all the quality produce that is very expensive. But we have to be careful.”
At Salt, Foster is judicious with his use of luxury ingredients such as foie gras and truffle, and says that he would rather use “amazing” oxtail than average beef fillet, or pay the same for brisket of wagyu as a good-quality sirloin of beef, as it makes for a more cost-effective dish on his tasting menu. “One of our signature dishes is carrot cooked in chicken fat, which has become really popular. It’s just a donkey carrot that we use, but the effort and the work we put into it makes it taste beautiful.”
The tasting menu format also means Foster can be creative when it comes to buying expensive proteins. “If I had a suckling pig dish on the tasting menu, instead of buying 30 saddles to last me a week or two, I’d buy two whole pigs, so the price per kilo was cheaper. The dishes would stay the same in essence, but the cut would change. We’d use the saddle first, then the next night it would be some of the shoulder and then we’d have belly and then some of the leg that had been brined and slow-cooked.”
One obvious way to reduce food costs is to simply not buy ingredients in the first place. Raymond Blanc recently told The Caterer how he was simplifying the food at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. “Imagine the cost, time and stress of having 10 garnishes. It’s not modern food any more. We have already created two dishes, including a wonderful langoustine with miso, which can be created in five steps. Less is more. There will be less stress in the kitchen; food will be hotter; it will taste better; and I’ll save two hours per day.”
At Flank, Griffiths’ no-nonsense style of cooking means he can keep every element as simple as possible. “The dumpling dish we had on was just the pastry, the meat inside and the sauce – that was it, there were no garnishes. If it’s just to make it look pretty for someone’s Instagram post, that’s costing you £30 a week in punnets of microherbs.”
A problem shared
However assiduously operators control food costs, there must come a point when the increase has to be passed onto the customer. The question is how to manage those inevitable price rises without having a negative impact on business. “Margins are tight enough as it is in this industry; there’s only so much I can afford to absorb myself,” says Garnsworthy. “At the moment we’re OK, but as things start creeping up, possibly towards the end of this year, we might have to look at passing on some costs to the customer.
“Our tasting menu is £90 for 10-12 courses, which is a lot, but it gives us more than most to spend per person to produce it. I try to pay my guys as much as possible, so if the cost of food goes up, I’ve got to put the price of the menu up to reflect that and keep the guys in jobs.”
At Alinea, Kokonas takes an unorthodox approach to solving the issue. “We constantly move our pricing in two directions, up and down, on a day-to-day and weekly basis, in order to remain full, even on shoulder times and weekends. Eating on a Saturday at 7pm costs $70 more to dine at Alinea per person than it does on Tuesday at 9pm. The ‘true’ price is in the middle somewhere, but it’s constantly moving based on demand, supply, time of year and time of the week. We are able to increase pricing overall over time, but only because we are making diners happy and keeping our experiences fun and delicious.”
Bottom of the food chain
But simply addressing the issue of rising food costs in isolation may not be enough. According to Peter Banks, managing director of Rudding Park hotel in Harrogate, there is a much bigger and more urgent problem that needs to be resolved. “The government wants the minimum wage to be £10 within a couple of years, so we’re looking at a 21% increase in wage costs if that happens. Frankly, if butter is going up by a couple of pence, it’s not as important as this. Ultimately, it will mean employing fewer people at a higher cost. So, when we say the food cost for a dish is 30%, is that the real question? Should we be asking how much a dish costs to produce both in materials and in labour?”
By introducing a menu in the hotel’s spa café of pre-prepared salad bowls, pan and grill work has been eliminated from the menu, thereby reducing overall costs. Banks is planning an old-fashioned time and motion study to identify time-consuming elements of dishes. “I’m not suggesting dumbing down, but actually clever menu design. We do the dish in a different way that will give the same result. I don’t know if there’s an answer to it because we’re not there yet, but we’ve got to try.”
Labour costs also need to be borne in mind to avoid the possible false economy of saving money by taking measures such as buying in cheaper cuts, foraging for food or making certain items from scratch. “At Silo we have a food cost of around 10% on average over the last two years,” says chef Douglas McMaster. “That sounds great, but our labour costs are higher as a result, because we are milling our own flour and churning our own butter and everything is made from scratch.”
At the town-centre-located Salt, Foster says judging whether foraging for ingredients is worthwhile is something of a balancing act. “It’s a nice thing for the team to get out now and again and we get the general stuff like wild garlic, blackberries and elderflower. It may be saving me on food, but is it costing me more on labour if the guys have got to drive 20 minutes, pick for an hour or two and drive 20 minutes back? If we’re short-staffed and there’s a forager down the road that going to sell me two kilos of wild garlic for £10, then I’d probably take it.”
Rising food costs is an issue that isn’t going to go away, but it is predictable, and manageable in ways that needn’t impinge on a chef’s creativity or compromise the customer experience. “For us, it’s about careful buying, negotiation and portion control,” Demetre says. “You’ve just got to be a pretty savvy cook.”
Cutting costs – the essential strategies
Develop great long-term supplier relationships They can rely on your business and, therefore, have a reason to have your best interests at heart and give you the best price.
Make time to monitor prices on a regular basis Make sure someone in your business is tasked with tracking market prices for everything you buy regularly.
Buy in season Know when produce is in season. It will be at its most abundant (and peak quality) then and therefore available at best price.
Offer only as much menu choice as your customer base demands Fewer options means less purchasing and less potential wastage.
Optimise your plating Consider carefully how you garnish your dishes. Every additional element on a plate adds costs and, once a certain point of complexity is reached, may even detract from the overall success of your dish.
Forage for free ingredients Even if you are a town centre restaurant, there may be wild garlic or blackberries growing not too far away or close to where a member of staff lives, and they could pick some produce on their way into work.
Spotlight the supporting cast Use your chef’s skills to elevate lesser cuts like lamb scrag, underused fish like gurnard and grey mullet, and overlooked vegetables like Swiss chard.
Thinking outside the bin: tips on reducing food waste
“We use everything. Kobe beef scraps get reduced to tallow, sausages and burgers. You have to think outside the box with something like broccoli, where the stems are usually thrown away. Suddenly it’s a benefit instead of a liability.
“We tightly manage our reservations book using the Tock system to reduce the no-shows that lead to food waste and ultimately result in very high food- costs. For prepayment but totally free reservations, Tock reduces the friction for guests to cancel, transfer or change their booking, so restaurants don’t prepare food for people that never arrive.”
Nick Kokonas, Alinea, Chicago
“When you’re filleting fish, save the trim, the offcuts that make a perfect fillet. They soon mount up and then at the end of the month you’ve got fishcakes or fish pie.”
Dominic Chapman, the Beehive, White Waltham, Berkshire
“On each chef’s bench we have a small container – that’s where their waste goes. It’s doesn’t go into the bin until it’s been okayed by a senior member of staff.
“Don’t buy excessively: if you sell out, you sell out. We buy fresh crab daily and we gauge how many we need, but if it’s gone, it’s gone. You tell your floor manager, ‘I need to sell 10 crab this evening, do it for me’, and nine times out of 10, they do it. If we’ve got a crab leftover from lunch, we might slip it into a dish in the evening.”
Anthony Demetre, Wild Honey St James and Vermuteria, London
“Serve vegetables whole. We peel as little as possible and only as appropriate – for example, when the skins are too tough to eat.
“Take vegetable scraps, or even food that’s sat out for too long and is on the turn, and boil them down for many hours to release and caramelise all the natural sugars to create a savoury syrup. We use it to dress grilled vegetables – it’s a wonderful glaze that has a sort of Asian flavour, a bit hoisin sauce-like.
“It accommodates all the things that are so difficult to use, like excess carrot tops. There are only so many green oils you can make.
“Buy high-quality organic vegetables and use preservation and fermentation techniques to utilise all of the vegetable by-products such as roots and tops.
“When you are using random and irregularly shaped vegetables from organic farms, sort out what will be a nice shape for the plate; what isn’t a nice shape can be blended for soup or other uses.”
Douglas McMaster, Silo, Brighton and London