How to Adapt and Succeed with Reduced Staffing Levels: Purchase vs Produce in House
When it comes to staffing levels, it’s not just about attaining and retaining talent. As the industry changes, it’s about learning to adapt to the new reality of staffing levels. In this series of blogs, I’m exploring the three main ways to address staffing levels on an ongoing basis. If you missed last week’s blog Hours of Operation and Menu Size, I suggest that you take a few moments to read through it after reading this one.
The number of convenience and processed food products continues to grow and with good reason. Companies know that staffing is a problem and where there is a problem there is a business being created to help. I will say it again, every operation is different, and everyone needs to weave through the considerations to see what fits for them.
When times are tough it is very easy and understandable that purchasing premade, cut, or processed food is the go-to and it has got me through some tough times. Using what I will just refer to as convenience products is a delicate balance in my opinion.
I have seen chefs that make mozzarella in-house daily because they like it but purchase the same premade dessert that the diner down the street serves. This is not a criticism of any premade desserts because there are a lot of great options this is about having a consistent approach to decision-making.
To me, items such as small tart shells, filo dough and a host of other items make sense to buy. There is not a significant improvement in the quality for the work involved. Plus, they are frozen and have a great shelf life. But let’s focus on produce as it captures most of the considerations for using convenience products.
There are several benefits to purchasing processed vegetables as they require less labour, storage space and equipment. They can work very well for the right operation and application.
On the other hand, there are downsides to this strategy over the long term with the increased cost of goods, decreased quality and shelf life and preparing less in-house can create a disengaged culinary team if they do not see their quality of work and growth.
Unlike menu size, there is a direct connection between processing food and labour savings.
It is straightforward that buying processed vegetables saves labour. So, problem solved right? Not really.
Do not make the mistake of making the switch before you determine what the exact labour savings are. I have seen time and time again that chefs buy more convenience items to save labour and they end up saving nothing. Again, there is a direct correlation to savings.
So, how do you know what changes to make? Assess your operations.
1. How much time is spent each day preparing each item?
This is imperative and not only do you need to know how long it takes, but you also need to make sure the process is as efficient as possible. For produce, the number of kgs (pounds) per minute is a great measurement when adding in the setup, storage, and clean-up time of each task.
2. How much is being produced each time?
This may sound like it contradicts the freshness concept, but it is about balance and finding the best solution. It may not be perfect, but all things considered, it produces the most consistent results.
- Can you extend the shelf life to produce the item less frequently?
- Would vacuum packaging help?
- Are the equipment and knife blades sharp enough? Dull blades reduce shelf life.
Keep in mind that processing time does not change. To run 50 lbs of carrots through a shedder will take 20 minutes if you do it once a week or seven times. The impact is in the time it takes for set up, storage and clean-up each time the task is performed.
Before continuing, you may think this level of detail is impossible, but it is not. I have run operations where all this information was not only captured but used to measure productivity in the central kitchens (commissary/production).
Now, the easy part. Consider you need to save 4 hours of work. Look at the amount of work for each item and find the equivalent of 4 hours per day in products that you can purchase. Then find the best products and come up with a plan to manage them well.
Last consideration, there are some preparations that happen throughout the shift that fill in downtime. Removing these may not save the 4 hours and all you will do is increase the food cost and you will have people with nothing to do.
Cost of Goods
The cost of goods increase may seem straightforward as you pay a higher price for convenience. But there also tends to be more waste with convenience products.
One reason is the shelf life and the other is ownership. When people prepare the food themselves, they are more aware of it and conscious of waste. If something is too easy it will not be respected and reduced shelf life can impact the cost. Trust me, when I had to peel 125 baby carrots, turn 125 turnips and beets, make 1.25” ravioli etc. there was no waste. Why? Because I didn’t enjoy doing those jobs. I guarded them like they were gold.
Shelf Life (Freshness) and Quality
Processed vegetables can save you time, no question, and it may be the only way for some operations to get through. Understanding more about them is important.
Anyone that has done food ordering knows how difficult it can be to predict business levels and what the guests will order. Over time we can get very good at it and never run short and eliminate most waste.
Now, imagine the producer that has no idea what will be required to fill tomorrow’s order, or worse Monday mornings. They are trying to guess what you and everyone else need. Chances are they don’t want to short anyone so on Friday they will bulk up for Monday. On Saturday there is a storm, and every restaurant is quiet, and it continues into Sunday. No orders are placed Monday and you have food that came in last Friday that was processed last Wednesday or Thursday. You stretch last Friday’s order to Wednesday. Now you reorder for Thursday, and it is possible the food you receive was produced last Friday. An extreme example but not impossible.
An important skill for the adaptable Chef is maximizing flavour and shelf life to have the best quality. So, what can be done?
There are ways to save labour and have better quality and shelf life. Let’s look at an example using diced carrots:
Ideal – You have enough employees and labour costs are not too high, you could buy carrots, peel them, and dice them.
Balanced – Buy peeled carrots and dice them. Although they are processed the cost will be lower and the shelf life is better. The reason is once you cut a vegetable three things happen, they lose flavour because of the heat caused by the knife and exposure to the air, and they start to deteriorate and lose nutrients. That peeled carrot allows you to slow that process and extend the shelf life until you are ready to use it.
In the end, there is not one answer it is about balance and each operation is different. Utilizing convenience products can be very helpful and knowing the pros and cons will allow you to make the best decisions. It may not be perfect, but it is better to be good consistently than perfect once in a while.
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