By now, most caterers know the basics of food costs. The question is how to control food cost after you've spent all that time and energy coming up with your menus? Obviously, one of the best ways to reduce price is to use less expensive ingredients; but what else can be done?
The first step in controlling your food costs is understanding menu engineering. Menu engineering involves manipulating your menu design (how much meat versus side dishes you put on each plate) so that a certain percentage of every dish is intended to be left uneaten. That's right – wasted. That's because once you start serving a dish, the more people eat of it, the more money you have to spend on it. A smaller percentage of a plate is intended to be eaten (i.e., more waste) and that's where the food cost kicks in.
Let's look at an example: Say you have eight items on your menu, but only seven are available for one price. You could serve either five or six portions of each item for that same price. Because every extra portion you eat costs you money, five is the better choice here, because it means fewer half-eaten entrees being thrown away before they even reach the table – wasted food equals wasted money! The bottom line here is this: to control your food cost, build your menus so that there will be some degree of waste with every dish you serve. For most caterers, 10 to 20 percent of waste is about right.
For smaller events (less than 50 people), guests may notice that they're not getting enough food to eat. For these events, you can reduce plate waste by offering items like individual salad portions, heaping servings of mashed potatoes and stuffing, etc.; or by simply adding an extra quarter-pound hamburger patty on every platter (who doesn't love leftovers?). Group appetizers like pigs in blankets are another great way to make sure everyone gets fed without increasing labor costs too much.
The other option for controlling your food cost is tracking the waste you do produce. One way to accomplish this is through transparent service; instead of putting all the entrees on one tray at once, bring out just one or two at the time, and replenish the tray as necessary. This reduces food waste caused by guests who eat everything on their plates but don't want seconds (or appetizers).
Another method for controlling food costs is to use smaller chafers and dinnerware. Smaller plates mean fewer material costs and reduced labor costs, too; plus you can serve more portions per hour if guests need to be fed quickly. One way caterers can reduce labor hours is through self-service options like salad bars, carving stations, etc., rather than having servers deliver each course from the kitchen. These methods all add up to big savings in both food and labor costs, without any decrease in quality of service!
In the end, it all comes down to the same thing: reduce waste by making sure that every dish you serve is intended to be eaten. When combined with menu engineering, cutting your operating costs becomes as easy as 1-2-3!