The food production factory

This essay outlines a system of examining a commercial kitchen in the quest to reduce kitchen running costs.

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The quest for kitchen efficiency is an issue that many businesses are being forced to address due to tight financial circumstances at the moment. Over the years we’ve been called on to examine the operation of many commercial kitchens and I have developed a system I use when I am looking for opportunity.

First, lets get totally dispassionate about your kitchen — it is a food production facility, a factory of sorts. Its efficiency is determined by similar rules and principles as those that apply to any engineering factory manufacturing any kind of product. Sure, there are differences; for instance your stock is decomposing rapidly and your environment must be near enough to sterile, but the basics are the same.

Your products must be well designed to start with. Each menu item must be saleable, able to be produced with the skills and equipment available, and it must be profitable — it must ultimately be popular and deliver a good margin. The standard recipe is your design tool. This document details all the materials specifications, portions, preparation method and presentation of a menu item. Without standard recipes you have no control over cost and quality.

It’s one thing to have a good design for a product and entirely another to ensure the product is produced according to that design. I often go into commercial kitchens and find a pristine set of recipes that no one seems to use. Meanwhile the kitchen staff ‘wing’ it by the seat of their pants on a daily basis and the chef fends off the calls for reduction to food costs with dazzling displays of smoke and mirrors. Good design and strict production control are the first steps to quality and efficiency.

Next, we should consider your purchase and receipt of raw materials. Are they well managed? If not you will be out of pocket before you even start. Are you getting what you pay for? Are you paying the right price for it? Is the quality excessive for the end use? Is there a stock ordering system? Have the staff who receive goods been trained to do it properly? Finding out the answers to questions like this could lead you to a rich raft of opportunity.

Moving on, let’s have a look at production efficiency. Engineers who are engaged in the quest for production efficiency draw elaborate flow charts that follow items right through the production process. Every time the item gets handled or moved there is an opportunity for gain or loss that the engineer considers in the quest to keep the costs down.

Just imagine if we produced a flow chart plotting the travels of the ingredients in a popular menu item in the average commercial kitchen. Would there be clean straight lines from the delivery bay, through the storage areas, the kitchen and out to the front of house? Not likely, I’ve done the exercise. It ended-up looking like a plate of spaghetti. Unnecessary movement, double handling, doubling back were rife. Every time a person moves from point A to point B, you are paying for the time but not getting anything of economic benefit in return.

The issue here is ergonomic efficiency. Architects, designers and chefs seem to very rarely consider where they put storage areas, coolrooms and equipment from the point of reducing human movement. Looking at this issue from another perspective, you might be able to run your kitchen with less staff if you give some serious thought to where everything is located. There is also a good argument here to suggest that all kitchen equipment should be modular and movable and capable of being rearranged to reflect changes in menu mix or design.

You may not be able to do anything about the general lay-out of your kitchen without considerable expense, but the next time you do kitchen renovations this issue should be at the forefront of your thinking. In establishing a new kitchen you should weigh up carefully the up-front construction costs of the various kitchen configurations possible against the ongoing labour costs in running that kitchen.

Staff productivity is the next issue on the list. Here I could probably write a thesis, but we haven’t got the space. Is there a well considered recruitment system for kitchen staff? Is there a system of induction/orientation and skills training for kitchen staff? Do the supervisory staff have appropriate communication and leadership skills? Are there standard times established for all recurring tasks? To focus your thinking consider the fact that if you have six staff and you increase their productivity 20% (which is usually easily achieved), you can now get the same work done with five staff — a 16% saving in labour cost.

Lastly, I look at the management of kitchen overheads. Is there consideration of energy management, proper control of cleaning chemicals, a proper repairs and maintenance schedule covering all kitchen equipment, etc? Broadly, is the Chef accepting the responsibility for the cost of running the kitchen environment as well as the food production?

I was taught as a manager to audit kitchen operations at least once per month, as an ongoing duty. Look at the amount of money flowing through you kitchen. It’s way too much to leave to chance. The efficiency of your kitchen is such a key element in running your business profitably, it should be a management priority to make sure it is happening. If your Chef is not tackling these issues in a logical and orderly manner you probably have a cook, not a Chef, in charge of your kitchen.

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