Take Control


Better managed inventories, for food and labour, is the secret to success

Chefs and restaurateurs are celebrating the gradual extinction of the tedious spreadsheet and, even better, the pen and paper. With new forms of innovative inventory control software on the rise, the days of jotting down inventory items on a sheet of paper and entering them onto a spreadsheet are coming to an end. This, thankfully, should help foodservice managers eliminate wasteful spending while saving time.

“You can do it [inventory checks] in 20 per cent of the time,” said Bob Parrotta, foodservice director at Butchart Gardens, a bed and breakfast based in Brentwood Bay, B.C. “If a restaurant is of a certain size, I can’t see them operating without it.”

The “it” is inventory control software, and it’s as varied as it is helpful. Some systems send data wirelessly to handheld devices while others amalgamate inventory information from various locations based on previously made spreadsheets and instantly prepare a streamlined report that can be accessed from a central location, like a head-office computer. The software is often designed to match the requirements of the restaurant and can be customized to suit a customer’s unique needs and, most importantly, his or her budget.

Before the system is installed, however, restaurant owners need to lay some groundwork. The first step often involves producing a comprehensive, electronically accessible list of inventory. Once the system is installed, the technology keeps track of what products the restaurant have in stock, how much is used on a daily or weekly basis and how much more of a particular ingredient will need to be purchased if there is be a spike in demand. It will also provide restaurant owners with an accurate report on actual use versus projected use, thus identifying any possible problems with over-serving.

“If there’s a downfall [for operators] in the industry, it’s labour and inventory,” says CCI Management Solutions CEO, RJ Lesher. “You need tight control on both aspects of that.”

The word “control” may sound ominous, but the latest inventory control systems are about keeping costs down by identifying and correcting commonplace errors that could lead to excessive financial waste. The software tracks how fast inventory is moving out, so chefs and owners can place new orders accordingly and avoid overstocking. It also tracks labour cycles, and will even prompt owners to accurately schedule employees based on recorded patterns in restaurant traffic. Last Friday was quiet? Perhaps this one will be, too. Your computer will remind you of last week’s count, and you can decide whether you need more or less staff that day.

“Choosing the right software depends on your business,” says FS Strategy consultant Andrew Waddington. “It should track what’s left over at the end of the day. The future [of foodservice technology] is making things as easy as possible. Operators need control over everything that is in their store, and it’s always worth the investment. Controls are paramount.”

These systems can turn a tedious, hours-long inventory count into a minutes-long exercise in convenience and accuracy. However, like many things, it comes at a cost. The latest inventory control software, depending on how innovative it is, typically costs between $3,000 and $7,000. For a large chain restaurant, the start-up costs will be practically reimbursed in the first few months, especially when noticeable declines in wasted food are present. For the mom-and-pop shop, a four-figure expenditure might be daunting; but the loss prevention can make it worthwhile.

“We’ve reduced food costs by two per cent,” says Parrotta. “I can now pin-point and correct deficiencies before they hurt us.”

The deficiencies Parrotta is talking about are simply products of occasionally unavoidable human error. He uses the example of a chef serving up a thick cut of meat that may be a bit larger than it should be. The diner won’t pay extra for the few extra inches of strip sirloin, and the meat supply will deplete faster without the operator having made a proper return on the investment.

For Parrotta, the software has to work triple-time. Butchart Gardens is home to 10 food and drink establishments, and he needs to see accurate records of what goes into the fine-dining restaurant, the coffee shop and the warehouse. “[The software] gives chefs and front-house staff a platform to work off of,” says Parrotta. “We have a clear indication of how we’re performing.”

Those performances, should they falter one day when the kitchen gets hectic, can be fixed within hours of discovering an avoidable blunder, rather than days or weeks after the fact.

“You want the biggest bang for your dollar,” says Parrotta. “You’d be silly not to take that opportunity.”

Illustration by Greg Stevenson


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