23 April

April 2013 Newsletter

Synergy Restaurant Consultants | Blog, newsletters
Synergy Restaurant Consultants


We’re seeing all kinds of data about how the consumer economy—and the restaurant industry—is faring as the economic recovery gathers steam. Some of it is conflicting, to be sure. A recent Harris Poll, as reflected in Restaurant Hospitality, suggested that many customers were still “sitting on their wallets.” And yet there was significant momentum in several segments, most notably the booming fast-casual sector, and the anecdotal evidence we see every time we dine out—new places open, customers out in bars and restaurants, having a good time again—suggests that the situation is definitely improving.

Notice, however, which restaurants are experiencing the boom: those that offer good food at a price that represents value, in whatever segment they occupy. Distinctive food and beverages options. Great service. Comfortable ambiance. It’s a formula that’s working for many, and should be a lesson for all of us moving forward.


To your success,

Dean and Danny

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The Importance of Prime Cost

By Brad Miller, Operations Associate

Image credit: Flickr by 401(K) 2013
Image credit: Flickr by 401(K) 2013

In the restaurant business, a lot of percentages are thrown around as gauges of success or financial health. Food cost, liquor cost, occupancy cost, labor cost, controllable costs… just to name a few. None are more important, however, than the big one: PRIME COST.

The prime cost is a calculation of your total food, beverage, paper goods, labor and all labor-related expenses (payroll taxes, workers comp, employee benefits and health insurance), divided by total revenues.
Prime cost for a typical full-service restaurant runs 60-65%, and for a fast-casual concept 55-60%. These benchmarks are dependent on your specific operation and are a rule of thumb to follow, not necessarily a “golden rule.” For example, steakhouses can run significantly higher prime costs because of the high costs of proteins, although revenues are higher than that of a hamburger stand. Fast-casual restaurants typically have lower labor costs which can bring your prime cost down.

Why is prime cost so important? It’s the most controllable cost in your business. Food cost, liquor cost and labor costs can be tracked on a monthly, weekly or daily basis, if necessary. Most POS systems have the capability to track labor cost on a daily basis. Most restaurants can easily track food costs by simply tracking purchases, sales and inventory levels once per week. What are the biggest pitfalls in not tracking your prime cost frequently?

• Too little, too late: Finding out that your labor cost jumped up 10% from one month to the next, 30 days after the end of the month, can be difficult to remedy immediately.

• I’m making money, so I don’t care about costs: You may be making money, but will you know if your new employee is stealing steaks from the cooler?

• Lost opportunities: It’s much easier to find the cause of a jump in cost if you know at the end of the week as opposed to the end of the quarter.

Possibly the most important reason to keep frequent track of prime cost? When employees see that management takes the time and effort to track costs, it breeds a culture of responsiveness. Take the time for the simple calculations; it will help in the long run.

If you need help controlling your costs, ask Synergy for a free evaluation.

The Power of Umami

By Joan Lang

Fish Sauce | Image credit: Flickr by Annie Mole
Fish Sauce | Image credit: Flickr by Annie Mole

Sweet, salty, sour, bitter… and umami. Derived from a Japanese word for “deliciousness,” the so-called fifth taste has taught us not only about why some foods are so satisfying, but also about the very nature of human appetite.

You may have heard or read about umami (pronounced “oo-MA-mee”), which is generally described as the savory taste. Discovered by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda more than 100 years ago, umami is the flavor of glutamate, an amino acid that is one of the essential building blocks of protein (Dr. Ikeda went on to submit a patent to produce monosodium glutamate, or MSG, which is the primary ingredient in Accent seasoning).

Not coincidentally, many Japanese foods are loaded with umami, including soy, seaweed, green tea, dried bonito flakes, miso, and the ubiquitous stock known as dashi. Italian food, too: Parmesan and other aged cheeses, tomatoes and olives all have significant umami content, along with mushrooms, truffles, potatoes and nearly every form of meat and seafood, from sardines and squid to shrimp. Anchovy paste and Asian fish sauce are loaded with it (there’s a reason they’re a surprising “secret ingredient’ in so many recipes); so are cured meats like prosciutto and even garden-variety condiments like ketchup and Worcestershire.

In fact, many scientists now believe that umami is the taste of protein, and that our ancient caveman ancestors would have sought it out just as they craved foods that were sweet (the flavor of energy-giving carbohydrates) and avoided those that were bitter (poisonous plants). Most humans’ first encounter with umami, in fact, is breast milk, which contains roughly the same amount of umami as broth. Yet surprisingly, many people denied the very existence of umami until researchers found its receptors in the form of tastebuds, paving the way for the discovery of specific tastebuds for the other four tastes.

Many umami-rich foods are some of the most satisfying foods in the world—think of a big sizzling steak with sautéed mushrooms and a baked potato, or a big bowl of pasta and tomato sauce, showered with grated Parmesan cheese. Foods like these have a deep, almost universal appeal; we crave them. That’s umami in action.

In general, the more umami that is present in food, the more flavorful and satisfying it will be. That applies not just to ingredients, but also to the techniques used to cook or process them, from grilling to drying and aging. Aged cheeses are more flavorful than young ones (or than milk, for that matter); sun-dried tomatoes have a more concentrated umami tomatoey-ness than fresh ones. That steak with sautéed mushrooms derives flavor not just from the meat and mushrooms themselves, but also from the caramelization and intensifying of flavors that take place on the grill and in the sauté pan, creating a real “u-bomb” of flavor. Fermentation also produces lots of umami, especially when you start with foods that are rich in the stuff to begin with (such as cabbage, turned into sauerkraut and kimchi).

Upping the umami factor in food has a number of benefits, not the least of which is enhanced flavor:

• Umami-rich foods increase the feeling of satiation, causing people to enjoy food more and potentially eat less of it
• The use of umami flavors reduces the need for added salt in food
• Umami piques the appetite; it could serve to counteract the decline in taste and appetite that comes with aging and certain types of illness
• Umami softens the bitterness of foods, which could lead to its use in the formulation of healthier diets for children, who are very sensitive to bitter flavors—such as those present in many vegetables

In everyday cooking, umami can make the difference between a great recipe and one that is merely meh. Many Italian braised and sautéed dishes start with a sofrito that contains a judicious amount of anchovy—including osso buco and sautéed escarole—which really bumps up the flavor factor without being perceived as salted and brined fish. A bit of tomato or aged balsamic vinegar adds not only a lively jolt of acidity to food, but also umami complexity. And we all know about that shower of freshly grated Parmesan at the table.

The Evolution of the Sandwich

By Joan Lang

You know when Bon Appetit magazine does an entire cover story on cheffy sandwiches (“The Greatest Things since Sliced Bread”) that the upscale sandwich trend has hit critical mass.

Once relegated to the role of convenience-oriented breakfast and lunch foods, sandwiches have now attained signature-level cachet, worthy of the attentions of serious chefs and demanding diners throughout the day.

Although the trend started with burgers, many boldface-name chefs are bringing their own take to sandwiches with sophisticated flavor combinations and meticulously sourced ingredients. In the process, they’re making their food more accessibly priced and in tune with today’s expectations for more casual dining experiences—and changing the definition of what a sandwich is.

Chefs like Tom Colicchio (‘wichcraft), Rick Bayless (Tortas Frontera), the team behind Diner and Marlow & Sons (Saltie), Graham Elliot Bowles (Grahamwich), Roy Choi (Kogi Korean BBQ), Nicholaus Balla (Bar Tartine) and Michael Voltaggio (Ink.Sack) were early to the party, in various degrees, and their success has helped to ignite a firestorm of demand for better sandwiches.

One of the newest star-chef entrants is David Burke, who is said to be working on a sandwich concept in Chicago’s James Hotel.

Meanwhile, there have been all sorts of interesting sandwich specialty shops opening up:

Bel 50 touts itself as a purveyor of artisan sandwiches “curiously crafted,” and indeed sandwiches like burrata cheese with fresh basil and EVOO and grilled Portabella mushroom with roasted tomato, goat cheese and roasted pepper aioli are built on thin, flexible waffles, instead of bread

Duran serves pretty little open-face European-style sandwiches with dozens of different toppings, ranging from tzatziki and French-style vegetable salad to Mediterranean Tuna, caviar and crab salad

• Animals, a 15-seat sandwich emporium in New York City, features such unusual items as a pulled bacon torta with refried baked beans and chile mayo, and a sandwich filled with curried cauliflower, walnut pate, pickled onions, frisee, cucumber, mint and spice pureed cauliflower “mayo”

• The new Blue Rooster Food Company in Portland, ME, has a wide-ranging selection, from porchetta (sausage-stuffed pork belly, pickled tomato, arugula and citrus mayo on house focaccia) to the Seoul Dog (housemade local natural-casing hot dog with housemade spicy kimchi, toasted peanuts and roasted garlic mayo)

• The selection at Project Sandwich is another world tour of sandwiches: Brazilian (grilled steak marinated in smoked salt, mozzarella, tomatoes, pickles and garlic cilantro chimichurri sauce); Middle Eastern (a vegetarian combo of grilled zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, and roasted red peppers dressed with lemon-garlic hummus); and New Zealand (Nutella and banana)

Mile End has helped to revitalize the sagging deli segment with its focus on upgraded classics like housemade chopped liver, smoked brisket, smoked lamb sausage and turkey rillettes

• The Spanish chain 100 Montaditos comes to the United States, bringing its eponymous, traditional little 5-inch sandwiches with it, stuffed with everything from turkey, tomato and olive oil to fried calamari

Note the focus on fun condiments, unique breads, and all kinds of textural flourishes. Not surprisingly, the trend is starting to trickle down to the fast-casual and QSR segment in the form of new sandwich platforms, upgraded breads, fillings, condiments and more.

• Wendy’s is introducing a new line of artisan flatbread sandwiches, while Tim Horton’s has its paninis
• Dunkin’ Donuts has latched on to the mega-hot grilled cheese sandwich trend with its Texas Toast Grilled Cheese
• The trend to spicy, crunchy condiments is playing out on Erbert & Gerbert’s new Luna, which includes tangy-sweet chili coleslaw, oven-roasted turkey breast, Swiss cheese, avocado and tomato
• Blimpie had so much success with its pretzel bread test that it’s adding the option to the menu full-time

For information on how to upgrade your sandwich offerings—or open your new dream sandwich shop—contact Synergy Restaurant Consultants.

Tip of the Month

Want more information about umami? The Umami Information Center is a great source of research, recipes, FAQs, events, detailed information about umami-rich ingredients and lots more. There is also a very detailed article about “Unleashing the Power of Umami” on the IFT (Institute of Food Technologists) website.

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