February 10, 2013

7 Costly Buying Mistakes Mexican Restaurants Make

By Ed Avis

Nearly all readers of el Restaurante Mexicano make purchasing decisions, according to our reader data. But do all of them make smart purchasing decisions? Probably not! Here are seven key mistakes that restaurant buyers commonly make.

1. Not Making Specifications

If you don’t have carefully prepared specifications for every item on your menu, you’re probably not creating a consistent experience for your customers, and you’re probably paying more than you need to.

 “The specifications are the framework of everything you do,” says Rupert Spies, a senior lecturer of food and beverage management at Cornell University. “If you buy steaks, you say what the weight of each is, what the trim level is, what the lip is, what the thickness is. Specifications are crucial.”

If you don’t have specifications, what happens? The distributor will decide for you. He’ll bring what he has available – which may not be what you really want – and you will have to pay what he charges.

Ed Hoegler, a chef and lecturer at Kent State University, says he creates a spec book for the 25 most expensive items he needs and the 25 most frequently purchased items, and that spec book guides purchasing.

2. Trusting Your Distributor Too Much

You might think your current distributor is the best ever, but if you let them know you feel that way, you may be in trouble. Why? Because if you stop checking what the distributor is bringing, he may stop caring about what he brings.

“Once you get lax in your receiving procedures, the delivery person will act accordingly,” Spies says.  “If the person who checks the deliveries is a pain in the rear, checks everything, and wants credit when something is wrong, the delivery person is very careful to bring exactly what is ordered. Whereas if that person is a pushover, the distributor thinks, ‘We can offload anything on them.’”

3. Not Paying Attention

Margarita’s is a chain of 23 Mexican restaurants in the Northeast. The chain was founded in 1985, so you might think they settled on their food supplier choices long ago. Not so!

“We’re always looking for better product to give to our guests,” says Brisbane Vaillancourt, director of training for Margarita’s.

Vaillancourt says restaurant managers are constantly on the lookout for new and better food items. They read magazines, meet with sales people, travel to Mexico, watch Food Network, and do other things to stay on top of food trends. They even hold a contest among employees to encourage them to come up with new menu items!

Not only is Margarita’s management constantly seeking info about new trends, they also seek out better suppliers. For example, Vaillancourt says Olé Mexican Foods recently presented its tortilla products. “Olé came to us and said, ‘We have the best product and we want to supply your restaurants.’” Margarita’s management was persuaded and now they are buying their tortillas from Olé.

4. Spending Big for Everything

Quality is probably the main criterion when you select your ingredients, but you don’t need the same level of quality for every food item. If your restaurant is known for a Cochinita Pibil, buy the best pork you can find. But don’t buy everything from that pork supplier just because it’s convenient; you might not need the same level of quality for every menu item.

“Look for quality for the center plate items,” says Hoegler. “While for some second- and third-level recipe items shop for price. You will find a great variance from vendor to vendor for the same items.”

5. Working With Too Many Distributors

This might seem to contradict item 4 above – which advises that you not use the same supplier for everything – but you don’t want TOO MANY suppliers, because each delivery will cost you money and time.

“You want to go with a broad-line distributor to get your standard stuff, because you want the economies of scale,” Spies says. “You should consolidate as many of your purchases as possible.”

Vaillancourt says Margarita’s relies on one distributor, PFG Northcenter Foodservice, but regularly asks them to carry and distribute specialty items that they need. “They are usually able to get anything we are looking into carrying,” she says.

6. Having the Same Person Specify as Select

Does your chef have complete control over selecting menu ingredients and suppliers, checking the deliveries, and approving invoices? That might be a bad idea.

“I’m not saying there is a ton of collusion, but you really want a separation of powers,” Spies says. “Because if I’m a vendor and I go to your restaurant and say, ‘Here’s something nice, and by the way, here are a couple of tickets to a baseball game,’ it’s hard to say no.”

Rather than letting one person handle everything, it might be wise to have the chef specify ingredients and participate in choosing vendors, but have someone else make the final purchasing decisions and pay the bills.

7. Ignoring Inventory Management

How often do you throw something away because it spoiled before you used it? Some of that is inevitable – zero spoilage might mean you were cutting your orders too close – but every bit of rotten food in your trash is money off your bottom line.

“Forecasting and inventory management is one of the legs any good purchasing department stands on,” Spies says.

One often-overlooked element is a careful analysis of each menu item to determine which ingredients can be used in multiple dishes. In a Mexican restaurant many common ingredients already appear in many menu items, but if you’re creating a special that requires a new ingredient, see if you can use that ingredient elsewhere and buy in larger quantity.

Similarly, if you already have a lot of special ingredients in your specs, see if really need each one or if some can be consolidated. “It’s a give and take with the chef,” Spies says. “A good purchasing person says… ‘You can use this product for this ingredient or that.’ ”

You probably don’t make all seven of these mistakes in your restaurant, but hopefully reading about them can help you prevent them. Are you aware of any other common purchasing errors? Please share them with other readers by mentioning them below!

This is the first in a series of articles el Restaurante Mexicano will be publishing about smart kitchen management in Mexican restaurants. Is there any topic you would like to learn more about? Please share it with Ed Avis, edavis@restmex.com, publisher of el Restaurante Mexicano.

February 10, 2013

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