Cover Counts: What are They and Why Do We Need Them?
When we enter the food and beverage industry, we hear different terms that reference the number of guests to expect or that were served. Whether it be PAX (unit) in banquets, reservations, or customer counts, we quickly learn that “cover” is the term most widely used. Simply, one cover represents one customer, so if you have 100 customers, you have 100 covers.
When Did a Customer Become a Cover?
There are a few opinions on how the term came to be. Some say it references the number of covers or cloches used to cover food as it is transported to the table. That is a fun theory, but since the actual covers are reused throughout service it is not how the name came to be. It comes from the French word couvert, and is derived from a phrase that translates to “anything that is required to cover the table for a meal”. The other notion is that the word cover refers to a cloth used to protect an individual setting on a table from dust.
More to the Number than the Guest Count
Cover counts are the basis for everything from ordering, production planning, scheduling, forecasting, and budgeting, to a long list of financial measurements and analytics. Let’s dive into the cover counts starting from the most basic to the more advanced uses of this number.
At the line level, the number of covers entered in the POS is a very important tool for the kitchen and is used as a check and balance. A quick count of the number of main courses on a bill could reveal that there were not enough meals ordered when compared to the cover count. This prevented the server from showing up at the table short of meals.
The single best measurement of labour, productivity, and output is covers/hour worked. The key to effectively using this measurement is determining the cover/hour standard or benchmark to measure performance.
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When forecasted covers and covers/hour worked are utilized, scheduling becomes much more strategic and is the starting point for labor controls. It helps ensure that there is adequate staff to service the number of guests and prevents overscheduling.
Combining the projected covers with the % of item sales history provides the team with insight into the amount of food and beverage items to order and prepare for in a given period.
The average check is a very important calculation that provides insight into sales performance and is crucial for budgeting revenue. It is calculated by dividing the total food and beverage revenue by the number of covers for a given period. It is worth looking at average food checks and average beverage checks separately.
The most effective way to budget is to tie everything back to the single cover. This will allow the manager to calculate the gross margin per cover and will be able to determine the number of covers needed to be profitable.
Are all Covers Treated Equally?
There are varied opinions on covers and how they are calculated in Food & Beverage operations, especially in operations that also service conventions and banquets. The issue isn’t the fact that one cover is one customer. The problem starts when covers are used to measure areas such as productivity.
The best example is a coffee break. It may take one server three hours to set up and service a coffee break for 100 people. That would be 33.3 covers/hour worked. Whereas a plated four-course dinner would require four servers at four hours each, for a total of 6.25 covers/hour worked. Keep in mind that the 100 covers for the coffee break also impact the covers/hour worked for the kitchen where they may not have any work to do for the function.
The solution is up to each operation. Having a different calculation and productivity measurement for each meal type works very well. It takes more effort but is helpful with budgeting and will allow you to dial in the payroll planning. Or simply assign a different value to each type of event. For example, one customer for a coffee may only be .2 of a cover. No matter what option, make sure that the calculation works and it is accurate.
Too Important to Overlook
Covers are the easiest measurement to capture, and the importance of the cover count and accuracy can not be understated. The number is used in all aspects of financial calculations and provides valuable insights into the operation.