Food Costs Don’t Matter

Food cost percentage is an indicator of raw product cost. That’s it. It is one number that holds a spot upon the pedestal of all that is sacred in the restaurant world – and that pedestal is on a very unstable foundation. Running an operation with a shaky approach to finances – especially based wholly on the sacred food cost percentage – is troubling at best, dangerous on a good day, and fatal when the planets align to destroy your operation.
When 300 customers doesn’t help.
Imagine selling 300 orders of just french fries. Are you busy? Yes. Are you profitable? Yes. Are you viable? No. There is no way to keep an operation moving forward on a high-volume, low sell-price item. As you will see below, it simply doesn’t work. Are there exceptions? Of course. Ask Starbucks – they make money one cup of coffee at a time. Or do they? Starbucks figured out that quick hit low-cost items need to be intertwined with higher cost gift cards, music, and take-out packs as well as food.
When super low food cost doesn’t help, either.
In a conversation with a local coffee shop owner, we were ruminating about the biz. I remarked that he seems to always be busy. He agreed. But he’s still having a hard time covering all his bills. Why? If 125 people come in on a busy Tuesday morning and their check average is $3.25, the gross take is $406.25. Back out the cost of the coffee and condiments. What’s left? Labor and rent. Even with a nominal product cost percentage, there isn’t enough revenue generated to push the pale of lower wages, deal with preventative maintenance, and the myriad trivialities that pop-up for business owners. Do the math.

A low food cost percentage — the cost of ingredients divided by the selling price— is not always the answer. It is only one piece in a very complicated game of what it takes to make and keep an operation profitable and growing. This is chess. This is not checkers.
Better formula?
Combine the cost to produce every dish on your menu. Call that the cost of goods. Add the selling price of each dish on your menu. Call that the sales price. Divide the cost of goods by the sales price.

For example, imagine a 3-item menu:
Hot Dogs $4 (food cost $1)
Hamburgers $6 ($2)
French Fries $2 ($.50)
Cost of goods would be $1 + $2 + $.50 = $3.50
Sales price would be $4 + $6 + $2 = $12
Cost of goods / sales price = $12 / $3.50 = 29%
Does that number keep you competitive? Now get even more accurate and run a sales report from your POS. How many of each dish did you sell over an average month? Multiply the cost of producing that item. Call that the sum cost of goods. Add the sales price of each dish multiplied by the number of each item sold. Call that the sum sales price. Divide the sum cost by the sum selling price. That is a much better snapshot.
Using the same menu, but scaling it out with the frequency of sales in mind:

Hot Dogs $4 (food cost $1), sold 63
Hamburgers $6 ($2), sold 11
French Fries $2 ($.50), sold 70
Sum cost of goods would be $63 + $22 + $35 = $120
Sum sales price would be $252 + $66 + $140 = $458
Sum cost of goods / sum sales price = $120 / $458 = .26 or 26%
Why you need higher priced items too.
Menuing a $38 filet that costs you $18 is better than selling a $6 burger that costs you $2. While the holy food cost percentage is lower for the burger, it isn’t the optimal menu mover. Why not? It takes five burgers to generate the margin equivalent to one filet. Rent stays the same. Utilities stay the same. Labor stays the same. You simply don’t put percentages in the bank. It does not mean that you abandon low cost items. It means that you put the buying power into the items that matter more than the ones that don’t.
Running a restaurant isn’t hard, just hard work. Establish a mix that capitalizes on getting away from the bottom line and moving the focus to top-line sales. The food cost percentage does not matter if the overall take isn’t enough to pay staff, cover the rent and keep the lights on.

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