Menu Management is KEY to Post-pandemic Restaurant Recovery

Tammy Allen, Director | Marketing & Programs, The NIIC

11 Steps to Success from Chef Brandon Gump

According to Brandon Gump, Chef and General Manager of Tri-Lakes Restaurant in Columbia City, Ind., wooing customers back to restaurants after COVID-related shutdowns requires culinary inspiration mixed with sound business management. He is also the food entrepreneur behind Rowdy Rooster Artisan Meats, a new charcuterie business in Fort Wayne.

“One of my favorite chefs says that ‘a recipe has no soul.’ Every individual brings soul to the dishes they create. At our restaurant, guests frequently ask for our recipes. I’m happy to share recipes, but I tell them there’s one essential ingredient missing — love. You have to put your heart and soul into what you’re doing.”

Brandon has been putting his heart and soul into the restaurant industry for more than 15 years. He shared 11 tips for restaurant revitalization through an online seminar, part of a Restaurant Revitalization Speakers Series hosted at The NIIC.

The Pandemic’s Impact

According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 110,000 restaurants and bars closed at least temporarily in 2020, impacting 2.5 million jobs. The pandemic seemed to hit well-established restaurants especially hard. Permanently closed restaurants had averaged 16 years in business; one in six closed forever after 30 years or more.

Restaurant survival requires both culinary creativity and sound business practices. Delight patrons and deliver good value. With high competition and low margins in the restaurant sector, constant focus on key performance indicators is necessary.

1. Focus on Prime Costs – “You can put any recipe on a spreadsheet,” Brandon said. “Insert your cost for each ingredient, how much is used in the recipe, how many portions you serve from the recipe, and then calculate your simple recipe cost. This is a great place to start for tracking food cost, but it’s not the whole picture.”

Through continuous monitoring—twice a week— Brandon records all invoices from food vendors on a spreadsheet. At the end of the week, he tallies his total food sales. He calculates a running food cost by dividing the sum of food purchases by total food sales.

Brandon then examines his labor costs. “We pay weekly, so as soon as we do the payroll, I take that expense and divide it by the week’s sales. That percentage is our labor cost.”

These two figures are used to calculate the prime cost. “When I consult with many restaurants, the prime cost is a new concept for them. We calculate prime cost by combining labor cost and food cost.” Among the restaurants he consults with, Brandon has seen prime costs range from 60 to 80 percent. “Lower is better,” he said, “but 65 to 70 percent is a good target.”

2. Train for Consistency – It’s essential to be aware of portion sizes.

“I’ve worked with recipes that call for a handful of cheddar cheese.  Well, how much is a handful? Betty’s little handful is a lot less than Brad’s big handful. Define portion sizes by weight, volume, or scoop size. Make sure all of your cooks are preparing your food in the same way. Consistency is necessary for cost control and inventory management. It also helps instill confidence in guests that they will receive the same product every time.”

3. Track Waste – In the winter, Brandon prepares three different soups each week. He keeps a waste log to monitor how much soup goes unsold.

“If we end up throwing away a gallon of soup every four days, we will make less soup, or we will look for ways to sell more soup,” he said.

4. Treat Inventory Like Money on the Shelf – Managing inventory isn’t much fun, but it’s necessary. In Brandon’s view, inventory is “money on the shelf.”

Proper management focuses on inventory turns — how much product is on the shelf at the beginning of the month, how much is purchased, how much is sold, and how much remains at the end of the month.

“This is the only accurate way to monitor usage.  Actual food cost equals usage divided by sales. This is the real number that we’re after.  Very few restaurants go this far to manage their costs, but this is the actual food cost — not some theoretical figure. It accounts for portion consistency. It accounts for waste. This is the number that really matters.”

5. Mind Your Margins – Another important performance indicator is margin dollars. These are the profits you take to the bank.  “Would you rather sell a $10 burger at 25% food cost or a $32 ribeye at 50% food cost?  The answer becomes pretty obvious. So, I design my menu to have a variety of items — some with a lower food cost and others with higher margin dollars.”

6. Pivot on Pricing –Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, markets have seen wild swings in the price and availability of ingredients. Sometimes, food prices will change what’s on the menu.

“I had planned to serve crab cakes this week, but my vendor let me know that the price of crab had gone up to $80 per case since the last time I ordered it,” Brandon said. “Well, I’ll do crab cakes another week. We changed our menu planning to adapt to new realities. A good relationship with your sales rep is essential to staying on top of price changes.”

Price swings can also work to a restaurant’s advantage. Brandon plans special features with ingredients his suppliers have on sale. With bulk purchases of discounted items, a creative chef can plan featured menu items with lower food costs and a higher margin.

7. Cook from Scratch – To lower food costs, Brandon advises cooking from scratch as much as possible.

“We switched from buying 30-pound cases of frozen French fries to 50-pound bags of raw potatoes. Of course, we had to hire someone to cut and blanch and fry those potatoes, but after all costs were considered, we lowered our costs from about 50 cents per portion to 12 cents per portion. And our guests like the hand-cut fries better.”

8. Practice Intentional Scarcity – “It’s okay to run out of special items,” Brandon said.

“Consider that $32 ribeye steak. If we have only 14 of them available and we sell out by 8 p.m., that’s fine. That’s a good strategy. I don’t want to hang on to lots of ribeye steaks and have to sell them as fajitas the next day for lunch.”

9. Stay Sociable – Use your website, Instagram, Facebook, and other channels to let people know about your features.

“We’ve gotten quite a following on Facebook, and people are excited to come in on Thursday for my fish tacos or on Friday for the almond-crusted walleye. Social media gives people a chance to plan a visit to our restaurant.”

10. Finish with a Flourish – House-made pies, cakes, cookies, and other desserts can be wildly profitable.

“Creative desserts are also a great way to use up ingredients that have a limited shelf life, like strawberries or apples,” Brandon said. “Put them in a dessert, and you’ll move them out of the kitchen.”

11. Host Special Events. – Special events are a great way to try out new things. Well-planned events can showcase how your restaurant is uniquely different and connected to the community.

“We’re currently planning our ‘Paws on the Patio’ fundraiser for the Whitley County Humane Society. We’re inviting pets and their people to enjoy our new outdoor patio space,” Brandon said. “We’ll have a themed menu for the humans, free treats for their fuzzy companions, and lots of fun activities to raise money for a good cause. Fundraisers are the number one way to bring first-time guests to your restaurant.”

Chefs and restauranteurs like Brandon Gump love what they do. Every day, they put their hearts and souls into their work. With sound business practices and careful attention to KPIs, restaurants can survive and thrive.

This blog is based on The NIIC Restaurant Revitalization Speaker Series, focused on five key areas: Mayhem, Miracles, Marketing, Menu, and Management. This blog focuses on Mayhem. Click here for a replay of the event.

About Brandon Gump, Tri-Lakes Restaurant

Brandon is the Chef and General Manager at Tri-Lakes Restaurant in Columbia City, Ind. He is also the owner of Rowdy Rooster Artisan Meats, a new charcuterie producer in Fort Wayne, Ind., set to open in the late summer of 2021. Over his 15 year career in the restaurant industry, he has managed various restaurants and bars as well as serve as a consultant to restaurants.

This blog is based on The NIIC Restaurant Revitalization Speaker Series, focused on five key areas: Mayhem, Miracles, Marketing, Menu, and Management. This blog focuses on Mayhem. Click here for a replay of the event.


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