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The Caterer

Technology: Cooking by numbers?

21 June 2007
Technology: Cooking by numbers?

Experienced chefs know all about the importance of gross profit margins and the like, but now there are computer programs that let you analyse every tiny detail of a menu and the way meals are prepared. Ross Bentley reports

Do you know how many dogs you have on your menu? Are you serving up enough workhorses for your customers?

If you don't know the answer to these questions, then you might need to consider "menu engineering".

The term refers to the practice of making informed decisions about refining the items and ingredients on a menu by calculating the contribution they make to the profit of an establishment.

In order to complete a menu engineering exercise, three key pieces of information are required: the cost price of a dish, its selling price and the quantity either actually sold or expected to be sold.

Of course, if the manager has the time and inclination, they can carry out these calculations using a simple spreadsheet. But in the cut and thrust of a busy commercial kitchen operation where up to a 1,000 different ingredients may be used over a year, many are taking advantage of a number of software products now on the market to automate this process.

Recipe costing specialist StarLogic, for example, has a suite of products called StarChef used by the likes of Compass Group and Macdonald Hotels. Central to StarChef is a database where ingredients are listed along with their cost. As a recipe is built the individual cost of ingredients are automatically added up to produce a sum total cost for that recipe.

Database system

An advantage of having all your ingredients' costs within a database-driven system such as this is that any change to the cost price or any change made to the specification of a dish will result in all recipes being updated accordingly across the whole system.

Once you have the cost price of a recipe and the selling price of the meal you are able to work out the profit margin. But this is not the whole picture. To truly menu engineer you need to know how many dishes of each type you have sold. Products such as StarChef automate the process by integrating with an EPoS system.

It's important to know how popular a dish is with customers because this will affect its profitability over time. For example, a restaurant may make £10 on every lobster dish it sells and £4 for every chicken dish ordered. But if it sells five times as many chicken dishes as lobsters then the chicken dish is obviously the more valuable to the proprietor.

In the niche world of menu engineering, four terms are commonly used to describe meals that possess a different balance between popularity and profitability.

"Star" meals are those that offer both high sales and high profit. "Plough" or if you are in the USA "workhorse" recipes exhibit good sales but offer low profit. A "puzzle" will give you low sales and high profit and a "dog" low sales and low profit.

"Establishments aim to have no dogs and as few puzzles as possible," says StarLogic director Adrian Chalmers, who feels long, complex menus where ingredients are less likely to be repeated in several recipes normally contain more dogs.

Workhorses

According to John Nessel, president of Restaurant Resource Group, a US provider of financial management software aimed at the hospitality sector, it is the workhorse recipes that offer the best opportunity of re-engineering - while ensuring that a reduction in cost does not sacrifice what makes it popular.

This, he says, can involve substituting a single relatively expensive ingredient for one that is less costly (eg, Assiago cheese in a Caesar salad for Reggiano Parmesan). It might involve substituting one cut of meat for a less expensive one, knowing that the preparation is what makes the item popular. It might be as simple as using a less expensive garnish or increasing the item's selling price.

"Your chef's imagination and talent takes over here," he says.

These ideas aren't new but the introduction of technology in this space has brought a fresh level of sophistication and provided users with a host of useful information based on the data held within the systems.

At hospitality labour-scheduling software provider Deterministics president Brian Sill says his products allow users to factor in the time it takes to prepare a dish into the menu engineering equation. This is done by calculating how many stages (eg, chopping carrots, making the sauce) are involved.

Consistency

Sill says the more stages there are in the preparation, the more likely it will be that consistency is compromised, so the system allows users to see quickly what the effect on profit would be if a time-saving action, such as buying in pre-prepared sauces, was adopted.

Users are also using menu engineering software to highlight ingredients associated with food allergies, such as peanut oil, according to Marc Enggist at menu engineering specialists EGS. He says sales of the company's Calcmenu product increased dramatically after new European laws on making customers aware of potentially reactive ingredients were introduced.

Likewise, the StarChef product contains a database of nutritional information about each ingredient, functionality that StarLogic believes has huge potential in a wide number of areas.

Says Chalmers: "It could help parents to track what children are eating at school, families to see what relatives in a care home are eating or hospitals to monitor the diets of specific patients."

Case study

Loughborough University's executive chef, Mark Price, is using menu engineering software to help sports students plan a healthy diet and track the nutritional content of their food.

Renowned as the UK's leading centre for sports science education, Loughborough is also the home of the English Cricket Board and a base for leading nutritionists working for organisations such as Sports England.

Consequently, Price and his team, which produces 60,000 meals a week for the various canteens and cafés on campus, are constantly aware of the need to provide a healthy menu and to ensure students are kept informed of the meal options.

Working on a five-week menu cycle, Price uses StarLogic's StarChef.net product to cost out recipes, update ingredient prices and restrict wastage.

The software also allows the catering team to see the nutritional value of each ingredient.

Earlier this year the application was integrated with the university student website, so now the nutritional information can be accessed by students using the catered halls and other customers using the bars and restaurants.

"Students are able to investigate and download nutritional data about the menus and the food they have eaten," Price says. "As far as I know, we are the first university doing this."

According to Price, the next phase is to create password-protected user accounts, where all campus-based users can develop a food diary to measure dietary performance and manage their personal goals. The plan is to make it as user-friendly as possible employing a shopping-basket facility so students can drag and drop chosen food items.

"We cater for the full range of students, from elite athletes to those less worried about their diet," Price says. "This approach gives our diet-conscious customers the ability to choose the most suitable items."

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