How to Optimize Your Menu to Lower Your Food Costs

Deliver the same value for less money with these ingredient strategies.
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Eliminate wasteful single-use ingredients in your recipes to lower food costs at your restaurant. (Photo: Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock)

Every penny counts when you’re planning what your restaurant will serve. You want to keep the cost of your ingredients down while delivering your guests an outstanding dining experience.

NCR Silver spoke with Stephen Zagor, dean of business and management programs at Institute of Culinary Education, for his advice on creating a cost-efficient menu.

Calculate your recipe costs

One of the best first steps you can take, whether you’re writing a new menu or evaluating your existing one, is to analyze the ingredients you’re buying, according to Zagor.

Start by costing out your recipes. If you notice that many of your recipes have very high food cost percentages or use ingredients that have high yield percentages (more trim and waste, which forces you to buy more product), you may be need to tweak your dishes.

By finding ways to lower your food cost percentages, such as choosing less expensive substitute ingredients, charging higher prices or changing your portion sizes, you can increase your profits.

Related: How to Change Your Restaurant’s Menu

Cut single-use ingredients

Major red flags to look for when assessing your recipes and inventory, Zagor said, are ingredients you buy that have only one or two uses.

“The more ingredients you have on the shelf, the more you’ve got tied up in inventory,” he said. “You have higher chances for loss, theft and waste. So the tighter you can keep your inventory and the more you can use all of your items, the better.”

A few single-use ingredients won’t break the bank, especially if they’re used for dishes that sell in high volumes, but too many random, expensive ingredients can cost you more than they’re worth.

Related: 5 Tips for Improving Your Restaurant’s Inventory Accuracy

Cross-utilize products

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When buying items like green beans to pair as a side, consider also using them as ingredients in stocks or soups. (Photo: PosiNote/Shutterstock)

One of the most effective ways to spend less on ingredients is to design recipes and menus for cross-utilization, said Zagor. You can do this by using the same item in multiple dishes or finding ways to repurpose unused leftovers to create new dishes.

“Supposing you have something left over that didn’t sell on one day. Ask yourself what you can do to remanufacture to sell it a second day,” Zagor said. “Maybe you put it in a soup, put it on a breakfast item, or whatever it might be.”

Almost every protein has multiple uses, said Zagor, as do most vegetables. The key to cross-utilization is planning ahead.

“If you’re buying haricots verts because you really think they go with this beautiful protein item, think about two or three other protein items they can go with or if you could put them in a stock or soup,” he said. “Every item can be cross-utilized, but the trick is creativity.”

Balance expensive and inexpensive items

Another way to keep your costs down without skimping on quality is to add inherently profitable meals to your bill of fare.

Dishes with big sticker prices, like those USDA Prime ribeyes you can charge $50 a pop for, have the potential to bring in lots of dollars. But when your ribeyes require you to shell out, say, $25 each to make and you sell only a few of them a night, they might not be as lucrative as you think.

Zagor recommends balancing your expensive-to-produce plates with inexpensive options, like salads, appetizers and pastas.

Customers don’t balk at a $15 serving of pasta that took only $3 to make. But they would balk at a steak with a 500 percent markup. Alcohol (cocktails and wine in particular) are another inherently profitable offering.

“These items that are basically low cost can be real anchors for the menu,” Zagor said.

Related: Should Your Fast Casual Restaurant Add Alcohol to the Menu?

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