Menu Management: A Big Piece of the Labor Puzzle

Apr 29, 2016

Menu Management: A Big Piece of the Labor Puzzle

Labor is the single biggest challenge facing the restaurant industry today, and the issue goes beyond hiring, scheduling and training. This focused article will explore how menu management—a disciplined, five-step approach to assessing what’s on the menu and how it’s prepared—can help optimize existing labor.

Menu Management is a Key to Labor Optimization

By Dean Small

Labor is the single biggest challenge facing the restaurant industry today. Demographically, the entry-level labor pool is shrinking, as Americans have fewer children. Regulations affecting minimum wage and healthcare are adding to the squeeze, and soon we may have changes in immigration policy that could also affect an important source of hardworking hourly workers.

There are plenty of other issues that impact an operator’s ability to make money, including higher expenses in just about every area, from food and occupancy costs to the price of insurance, to say nothing about increased competition, from both foodservice and retail. That makes most operators even more nervous about raising menu prices enough to cover the shortfall.

It’s an era of having to do more with less.

Menu management is one answer. This disciplined approach to what’s on the menu and how it’s prepared can help significantly with labor optimization.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Evaluate your existing menu for orphan (single-use) production items and products – Orphan ingredients, especially any items that you make, represent a missed opportunity to cross-utilize. They take time to prep, time to inventory, time to organize. If you’re only using pineapple pico de gallo on one menu item, even if that item captures a healthy percentage of sales, you’re doing it wrong.
  2. Assess the menu mix to determine true labor needs – Our rule of thumb is that for every menu item, there are at least three subrecipes; for chicken enchiladas, for instance, there’s a recipe for the filling, a recipe for cooking the chicken, and a plating recipe. There may also be subrecipes for a sauce (like that pineapple pico), a finishing drizzle, and accompanying rice and beans. You need to break down each menu item to see how much labor is involved in each step before you can truly know the labor needed to produce it.
  3. Conduct a time-motion assessment to evaluate what production items are driving labor requirements – Where’s all your labor time going? Knowing what items require what labor allows you to compress that requirement. Our client California Pizza Kitchen knew money was being left on the table in the back-of-the-house but it couldn’t determine where this was happening. We helped them set guidelines for every single recipe and subrecipe, in the back-of-the-house and on the line, and identified places where a total of four to five hours were being wasted in duplicated efforts every day; that equated to $6 million a year chainwide.
  4. Create multiple-yield recipes to meet projected volume requirements – Let’s say you’re making Ranch dressing every day. Stop. If Ranch dressing has a three-day shelf life, make a big batch on Monday and another one on Thursday; you’ve saved 30 minutes on the other five days assembling, mixing, labeling and storing Ranch dressing. What else could you do with that 2 ½ hours? If you know you’ll be slow on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday—you’re using your POS or other historicals for this, right?—there should be recipes for a 2-gallon batch and for a 4-gallon batch. You’d be surprised how few major chains do this; management figures the unit chef will know, but guess what? Do this for every production recipe that doesn’t have to be made every day.
  5. Identify time requirements on each recipe – Once you know the amount of time required for every single menu item component, then and only then can you add everything up and get a baseline for all labor hours needed. Then you can compare actual labor time against theoretical; the gap is your wasted labor. And that’s what you can begin to optimize.

This menu assessment phase is just one facet of labor optimization in the back-of-the-house. Others include making an investment in more efficient equipment, identifying tasks that can be produced more quickly by using smallwares and other tools, implementing better closing procedures, and much much more. But knowing your menu and the time it takes to produce it is where you start.

Dean Small is Founder and CEO of Synergy Restaurant Consultants (, a team of restaurant industry veterans who specialize in both launching new restaurant startups and jump-starting struggling or financially distressed brands.