Top 10 Ways to Cut Costs at Your Restaurant

A penny saved is a penny earned. And for every way to spend money on your restaurant, you can find ways to cut costs at your restaurant.

The recession of 2009 continues to siphon spirits from the beleaguered restaurant industry in 2010.  After decades of positive consecutive sales growth, the restaurant industry has had two back-to-back years of overall sales declines.  It’s clear that to survive, restaurateurs must implement both restaurant cost-cutting and revenue-building programs. Here are ten ways to cut costs at your restaurant.

Top 10 Ways to Cut Costs at Your Restaurant:

1. Sell, Sell, Sell

Okay, technically this isn’t a “cost-cutting” tip, but bear with us.  You can’t operate yourself to a profit.  The top line cures all that ails you – a 2% increase in sales is equivalent to a 10% reduction in food costs.  The surest way to quickly boost profit is to build top-line revenue.  Even though the industry is down, it is only down by a few percentage points overall – meanwhile, some restaurant companies are down by double-digit percentages.  What this says is that even in a bad recession, some restaurant companies are way up.  There are still sales to be had, but in this market it won’t happen on its own.  As the saying goes, “you eat what you kill,” so this is the time to get out there on the offense.  Can you refresh the sales skills of your front-of-the-house staff? Can you get your servers to sell more beverages? Can you put together some creative specials or fixed price options that will get people in the door? Before you start looking for ways to cut costs at your restaurant, make sure you’re doing everything you can to creatively and energetically sell your restaurant’s offerings.

2. Re-Engineer

The tectonic plates of the restaurant industry have shifted irrevocably – and even after the downturn ends, things are not going to go “back to normal.”  There are still many billion-dollar restaurant chains sitting on the fault lines thinking that their woes are just temporary and due to the downturn.  The fact is, the restaurant industry has changed – due to economic, cultural, and demographic factors – and the pace of change is only speeding up.  The Fast Casual category is growing much faster than the rate of the industry overall, which means that there is going to be cannibalization of someone else’s existing sales.  Home Meal Replacement, which is at $70 billion annually, is the new battleground between restaurants and grocery stores.  Grocery stores steadily lost market share to the restaurant industry every year for decades and now they’ve had enough.  They are fighting back and operating more like restaurants – you can see it at any well-run grocery store; they’re offering pre-packaged meals, take and bake pizzas, a wide variety of culturally diverse menu options and meals for all sorts of dietary needs.  The restaurant industry has begun to fragment and splinter and the winners are the ones who are specializing.  Meanwhile, restaurant groups like Chili’s and TGI Friday’s continue to operate on the systems and approaches of the restaurant industry of the 1980’s and 1990’s – trying to be all things to all people.  We saw how that worked for Bennigans (they went bankrupt).  Many restaurant companies are holding on (for now) with sophisticated financing schemes, but their focus should be on re-engineering for the future of the industry, not trying to force yesterday’s approaches to continue working.  When you re-engineer, you naturally find ways to cut costs at your restaurant, as you find more efficient methods and approaches to doing business. Re-engineering means asking, “What is our unique niche? What are the right things for our business to be doing?” You need to be willing to take a clear-eyed look at the reality of the industry, and re-engineer with the approach that “there are no sacred cows.”

3. Invent

There’s nothing like a recession to get the industry dusting off tired old promotions.  The happy hour and all sorts of other state-of-the-art-in-1989 programs are being re-introduced and, to the dismay of those pushing them, the results just aren’t there.  Times have changed.  Consider the media that restaurants use to market themselves. When radio was first introduced as a new form of media, it took 38 years to reach a market audience of 50 million people.  It took television 13 years to reach 50 million.  Facebook reached 50 million in just 2 years.  Meanwhile, tired restaurant chains are pushing happy hour promotions via mass media advertising and taking a “wait and see” approach with social media.  News flash: social media is not a fad, it’s not something that is going to just blow over; this is a cultural phenomenon that is shaping our lives for years to come. Social media isn’t just for Millenials.  (But even if it were, there are now more Millenials in America than Baby Boomers – and Millenials eat out more often and spend more on restaurants than the Boomers do.)  The fact is, the rest of the world and other businesses/industries are having to speed up their rate of change and reduce cycle times.  The real winners – companies like Apple – are winning through invention.  We just experienced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, yet Apple’s iPhone is the fastest-selling product in history and sales only continued to climb in the recession.  How did they do that without discounts?  Invention.  The more you innovate and invent, the less you have to discount. The more you can do to create a one-of-a-kind customer experience, the more you can afford to charge – and the more customers you can expect to see in your dining room.

4. Furlough

Make sure you keep your top people.  Before you terminate any of the good ones, ask them to consider a furlough or reduced hours.  The National Restaurant Association estimated that for each average hourly employee you hire, you spend $1,500 training them.  Meanwhile, many restaurants have a 100% or higher turnover rate of employees.  If you have a staff of 100, that means $150,000 per year in training new employees!  Since this “training” cost is often just rolled into payroll and not accounted for separately, many restaurant executives don’t know the true cost of their training programs.  Retention is key (and so is a modern-day approach to training systems, but that’s another article for another day).

5. Inventory Utilization

When I took over operations for a $4 million Caribbean-themed restaurant, I focused in on the bar.  We generated nearly 30% of revenues from the bar and were running bar costs in the high 20s (cost as a percentage of sales).  When I studied our purchasing and inventory, I saw that we had stacked up cases and cases of a product that wasn’t moving.  Canadian Club had been running a promotion for their new Canadian Club Citrus and so they were giving bottles of it away with purchases of other faster-moving product.  Our competitors up and down the beach had amassed mountains of this product too.  They started trying to unload it with $2 shots.  Then $1.  Then 50 cents.  No one bought it.  People had never heard of Canadian Club Citrus and they figured that if it was selling for  50 cents it couldn’t be good.  So, I took a different approach.  I invented a drink called the “Cayman Curse” and said we couldn’t tell you what goes in it or you will get the curse of the Cayman’s.  We sold them for $8 and built appeal by putting dry ice in (which makes the drink appear to “smoke”) and supporting it with a suggestive selling program.  Results?  This “mystery drink” made from a previously un-moveable liquor became our top seller.  We started trading a bottle of Crown Royal with other restaurants for a case at a time of the product they weren’t moving.  Our cost in mixing the drink was so low that – coupled with the huge volume – it brought our overall bar costs down to 16% of revenue.  That’s half of what it was!  Just one innovative idea and new approach to inventory utilization made a big impact on the bottom line.  You don’t have to have a bar though – similar approaches can be taken with different varieties of fish, for example, and you’re not only reducing costs but also taking pressure off other fish species.

6. Marketing

The average restaurant in the U.S. spends 3% of revenues on advertising and marketing.  This is a variable and controllable cost that many restaurants cut from their budgets when the going gets tough. To some extent, that’s fair – after all, with the downturn, this is a good time to stop spending on mass media advertising.  Don’t throw money away on billboards, radio, television, bench, Yellow Pages, or other antiquated approaches to connecting to your customers.  However, it’s never a good time to stop marketing.  Especially in a recession.  It might sound counter-intuitive, but now is the time to invest in marketing.  You will find that some of the biggest swings in market share happen in a recession as some businesses stop marketing and others turn up the heat.  The goal isn’t just to spend though, it’s to invest.. A lot of new media marketing techniques offer you a level of flexibility and the ability to measure results in a  way that was never possible before. Take advantage of the downturn – when your competitors are dialing back their marketing efforts — to explore some of the new options to connect with your customers. It’s an investment that will pay off — now and in the future.

7. Ask Your Vendors for Help

Even if times are tough, you can often turn to your vendors for support. Landlords will give grace, broad-line distributors will give extended payment terms, and in general, your vendors want you to succeed.  Your destinies are intertwined in that regard – the better you do, the better they do.  It is short-sighted to price shop vendors in such a way that you bounce from deal to deal with no loyalty to a vendor.  When you are loyal and ask for help, generally you get it.  Often, those vendors that steal you away with a lower price are lacking on the service side and sometimes, the service you lose is worth more than the discount you gained.

8. Focus on Majors

The 80/20 rule should be applied when seeking ways to cut costs at your restaurant.  Many operators attempt to improve 100 areas at once – and as a result, they never get deep enough into any one problem to be able to make a real difference.  The key is to find your critical leverage points.  One of my clients has food costs that have run as high as 47%.  Every percentage point reduction in food costs is equivalent to $100,000 in net profit improvement.  Our approach isn’t to tackle every one of the 350+ inventory SKU’s they have.  Our approach is to focus on the top 5 SKU’s.  Focus on the big stuff first.  Work your way down your profit and loss statement or inventory, working on no more than 5 items at a time.

9. Purchasing Cooperatives

We have introduced many of our clients to purchasing cooperatives.  A cooperative is a buying group that gives independent operators and regional chains buying power like the mega-chains.  Whether you’re buying food, kitchen equipment, or marketing services, when you buy in bulk you always get a better deal and better service.  If you don’t have the buying muscle you need, join or start a cooperative.  We have seen one operation go from paying $48 for a bag-in-the-box of soda to paying $42 and less.  That’s a 13% savings just for purchasing in a group.  It adds up quickly when you’re pouring 100,000 gallons per year as they were.

10. Set a Good Example

You can’t show up to work in a brand new Mercedes and expect your employees to believe that cash is tight.  You’ll notice many CEOs these days setting examples for their other employees by tightening their own belts too.  The CEO of General Motors worked for $1 per year.  The CEO of Land O’ Lakes (a $12 billion company) flies coach like his employees.  The CEO of Wal-Mart stays in 3-star hotels and often shares a room with another executive.  When the head of the company demonstrates a willingness to put the company above his own comfort, it trickles down to the rest of the company and inspires them to do the same.

Recessions force every business to look at their spending more closely.  Even the world’s largest governments are facing shortfalls and having to make hard choices.  Use this time as an opportunity for innovative new approaches – not just penny-pinching.  As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of all invention.”  Be thankful for the downturn – if you use it correctly, it will help motivate you to adopt newer and better ways of doing things.

I hope you have found this article helpful.  Please share your comments and suggestions on other ideas you have for ways to cut costs at your restaurant using the reply form below.  We’d love to hear from you and share your insights with other readers.

Next: be sure to check out part two of this series, “Top 10 ways NOT to cut costs.”