Learning from Restaurants
If you're a regular reader, you know I like to try to draw from non-traditional sources and industries. This article from WSJ caught my eye and made me think of some Lean concepts.
As in many businesses, restaurants are caught in a double pinch right now. Raw material costs (food) are going up and the sluggish U.S. economy is dampening demand, especially for some moderately-high to high priced restaurants.
“Price increases are across the board; the commodities have just gone crazy,” says Brett Reichler, a corporate executive chef of B.R. Guest Restaurants, owner of the Blue Water Grill. “Flour is up 30, 40%. Beef's on the rise, fish is on the rise. Nothing is inexpensive any more.”
Some restaurants are going the route of many manufacturing companies — trying to “pass along” the costs as if it's an entitlement. This is no more true for food than it is for automobiles. Just because the price of steel goes up, that doesn't mean you can automatically increase the price you charge for cars. The prices are all driven by supply and demand, as is true in any industry that's totally warped by regulation or monopoly power.
The WSJ article focuses, however, on the restaurants that are taking action instead of just complaining or trying to raise prices. Some restaurants are looking at what menu prices customers are willing to pay and they are “engineering” the food and ingredients to hit a profitable cost in comparison to that menu price.
This is reminiscent of the Toyota practice of “value engineering” where products are designed to hit a cost that allows profitability given a market-driven price. This is different than the old “cost plus” mentality where manufacturers try to “tack on” a profit margin on top of designed or incurred costs.
Some examples from the article (which make me drool because a weakness of mine is nice restaurants):
Restaurants have long engineered menus to allow the bigger profits from pastas and vegetable side orders to subsidize such loss leaders as rib-eye steaks. But rising prices have prompted a furious new round of behind-the-scenes shuffling. San Francisco's Slanted Door is known for its rack of lamb. On many days, chef and owner Charles Phan offers a more-profitable lamb sirloin stir-fry instead, shaving his food costs by a third. It is a temporary fix that draws some complaints. “Everyone wants that rack,” he says.
At Le Cirque in New York, diners can choose from four pasta dishes, up from two a year ago. “Pasta's a great item for reducing food costs,” says co-owner Mauro Maccioni. He estimates that he is paying 5% more for the food his restaurant prepares, including big increases for truffles and butter. He touts as good values his new pasta dishes, which include a chestnut-flour pappardelle with wild mushrooms and a veal ragu.
In the case of the Slanted Door, I guess you could argue that the chef is not meeting customer demand (for racks of lamb). He has to weigh the trade-offs of profitability and the risk of driving away a loyal customer who might be upset.
They talk about some menu items subsidizing others. We can also see this at fast food restaurants. Do you think the price of a burger and the soda are driven by true costs? Of course not, they charge what the market bears. Sandwiches are often cheaper (compared to their costs), but they make up for it by charging a relatively huge markup on a beverage.
Chefs are also getting more creative in making full use of their food and ingredient purchases, to reduce waste:
Some chefs, such as Raphael Lunetta of JiRaffe in Santa Monica, are yanking pricey entrees from the menu to promote as daily specials. He says a good pitch by waiters for the roasted rabbit with herb polenta gnocchi, for example, helps sell more of the dish and reduces leftovers.
Another strategy is to offer less of an expensive meat and add a cheaper cut. Diners who order “Roasted Pekin Duck” at the Powerhouse Restaurant and Bar in Chicago get a half-breast and a duck confit instead of a whole duck breast. The substitution cuts costs nearly in half by allowing the restaurant to buy entire birds instead of individual duck breasts. “You're not paying for processing,” says managing partner Mitchell Schmieding.
Anyway, I hope you have access to the full article, it's definitely worth reading. As you do, think through the possible parallels to your business. Can you learn something from your local fast-food joint or a snooty French chef?
One chef sums it up:
Skilled chefs, says Mr. Chang, transform whatever comes their way. “If you need to make real food out of nothing, that's real cooking,” he says. Echoing a culinary maxim, he adds: “It's easy to cook a sirloin. It's harder to cook with potato scraps.”
Not much whining there — just good business.