February 3, 2021

5 Food Procurement Tips For Your Restaurant

by Scott Youkilis

Procuring goods from vendors is an essential function of every foodservice operation. As a food buyer or a restaurant operator, oftentimes your “secret sauce” could be having access to an incredible vendor. 

This article offers 5 tips to consider when sourcing goods for a restaurant.

  1. Get To Know Your Vendors
  2. How To Manage Multiple Vendors
  3. Keep Up With Trends
  4. Consider Sourcing Locally
  5. Use A Recipe Management System To Calculate Food Costs

The Crooked Stick

The Crooked Stick, is the oldest running tavern in King of Prussia, PA. Its chef, Wilson has been running the restaurant since 2009 and is primarily responsible for their specialty, Salisbury Steak and Fries. The savory dish has been on the menu since the 1920’s when the kitchen was briefly run by German chef from Hamburg.  The tavern relied on pints of Yuengling and shots of Jameson to appease the bar crowd, but the famous dish contributed more profit dollars than any other item. 

The pandemic had been particularly cruel to “The Stick” as on-premise liquor sales dropped to nearly zero and takeout and delivery turned out to be unpopular with regular diners.Even worse, the cost of beef skyrocketed raising havoc on his food costs.  Wilson was in a pinch and needed to sharpen his pencil and find a solution quickly.

Tip 1: Get to know your vendors  

Every metropolis has multiple companies supplying identical goods.  Commodity items are often priced equally across the board making it difficult to choose which vendor to rely on. 

Many suppliers may advertise their low, low pricing, but other differentiators like specialized sales reps, excellent customer service, and on-time delivery are could be more important to consider. Getting to know your vendor beyond just their price list is critical. 

Here are some great ways to get to know your vendors better

Visit their facility

Is it clean and organized? If you’re buying fresh meat and seafood, your chosen vendor has to have high sanitation standards. If you see poor sanitation standards (or citations from the local health inspector), it’s a deal-breaker. 

Get to know their team

Form a relationship with your sales representative and the owners of the company.  Delivery drivers are typically the ones you interact with the most and folks you should talk to. 

Are they friendly and know where to make the delivery? When they park the truck, are they courteous to your neighbors and local traffic?  

Get to know the drivers and treat them well so your deliveries come uscathed and on-time. And, when mistakes happen, a positive relationship will help fix problems fast.

Become familiar with their sources 

Produce and specialty meat vendors love promoting farmer relationships.  Many of today’s best restaurants are concerned about sustainability and the positive environmental impacts of buying local. Being able to speak to the source of your ingredients is a great marketing tool for your restaurant. 

Tip 2: Use multiple vendors to get the best deal

Vendors are the lifeblood of every restaurant. Without a reliable partner to deliver goods at a fair price, on time, and in excellent condition, restaurants will struggle to create menus and keep themselves in business.

Very few restaurants rely on just one vendor to do everything.  In fact, it’s best practice to use multiple vendors. From controlling prices to sourcing unique items to utilizing the best restaurant technology, no company can offer everything. 

Here’s why having multiple vendors can be a good thing: 

Having multiple vendors can keep your prices in check. 

It’s no secret that restaurants have multiple suppliers for specific goods and vendors know that better than anyone. Use the price lists of all your vendors to keep your favorite vendors in check

Insider Tips:  Don’t presume that the vendor is being malicious when you catch a high price. Simply, they may lack a sophisticated system to monitor market price fluctuations which makes adjusting sell prices difficult.

Insider Tips:  Don’t be overly aggressive when addressing it. Maintaining a positive vendor relationship is of the utmost importance.  

Having multiple vendors helps you source unique ingredients

Broad-line distributors are a great source for items in every category, but lack the specialty items that many restaurants need to differentiate themselves from competitors. Whether it’s spices or wine, use your network to find the importers and small distributors specializing in single categories. 

Tip 3: Stay On Top of Food Trends

two pancakes with blueberry on top

Diners’ tastes for adventurous meals and experiences have been growing for years. Restaurants continue to innovate exciting dishes by combining flavors and unusual ingredients to dazzle their guests. 

The vast majority of restaurants however, focus on maintaining a menu that pleases the masses and rarely changes. If you find yourself in that latter category, keeping up with the changing trends is difficult.  

Here are some ways to stay on-trend:

Take a micro and macro approach

Identify the big themes occurring across the country and how it aligns with your concept, then assess which obscure ingredients fit your menu and gets you excited to create new dishes

Always align with your brand

If Szechuan Chili Crisp is having a moment and you run a pancake house, it’s probably not a good idea to incorporate a unique flavor like szechuan peppers into your breakfast concept

Rely on trendy food items to spark innovation, but keep your concept in mind.

Look into the past to succeed in the future. Nostalgia and menus that invoke childhood memories are trends themselves, but they could help spark creativity and tell a story that brings a personal touch to your concept.

Remember, there’s a difference between trends and being trendy. Being on-trend means updating your business practices (for example having online ordering and delivery options) to fit what most consumers are looking for. Being trendy means trying to offer the latest hot menu item (beyond burger or impossible burgers?) without thinking about how it fits your concept or operations. 

Tip 4: Consider sourcing locally

Diner demand for fresh, local, organic, gluten-free, and other unique options on menus has been growing for years.  Online ordering, curbside pickup, and delivery have created challenges for maintaining orders and tracking as well. 

The net result is more vendors, more items, and more processes, creating a highly complex supply chain.

Sourcing far and wide has far and widening costs

Consumer expectations and growing desire for unique experiences has pushed buyers to source ingredients from across the world.  Transporting these goods requires restaurants to enlarge their supply networks and optimize processes.

Supply chain transparency becomes muddier as complexity increases

Managing the supply from end-to-end while keeping up with food safety standards and compliance can get complicated quickly. Providing consumers with the transparency they demand can be difficult. 

Consider sourcing a portion of your ingredients locally instead. Local supply chains tend to be shorter and easier to manage (and tend to be cheaper). Additionally the seasonality of supply means that you can get creative with your menu to reflect seasonal offerings. 

Tip 5: Use A Recipe Management System To Calculate Food Costs

Part of the challenges of sourcing and creating a menu item is knowing what it costs to create it. Recipe management requires the operator to standardize recipes for menu items, calculate the cost of putting the menu item together and how those costs change over time. 

The benefits of recipe management is that it lets the operator control their menu with a fine-tune to minimize cost-of-goods-sold and maximize output. When connected with the point-of-sale system it provides detailed information on which menu items (and thus ingredients) provide the widest profit margins. 

By integrating a recipe management system like COGS-Well with an Invoice Management Platform like Plate IQ, the operator would be able to connect invoice, inventory and point-of-sale to accurately calculate COGS, and fine-tune their recipe. This provides a lot of insight on which items to procure and at what price. 

After the orders are delivered, managing the accounts payable system through automation is best practice.  Whether you’re a local tavern or Michelin starred restaurant, companies like Plate IQ help businesses manage invoicing, pay bills, and control spending so they can focus on other parts of the business. 

Planning for the next century

Wilson and the entire staff at The Crooked Stick have struggled to manage the century old tavern and Sheila, the owner, has come to realize that running an “old school” restaurant “the old school way” is no longer possible.  To overcome their challenges in the kitchen, they turned to technology to manage their systems. 

Since implementing an AP management solution like Plate IQ at The Crooked Stick, Wilson has been able to:

  1. Manage multiple meat vendors to ensure he’s always getting the lowest price on ground beef and maintain a consistent total food cost every month.
  2. Using the extra time saved managing invoices and paying bills, he met up with his sales rep and visited the meat packing plant to begin development of a new customized beef blend for his Salisbury Steak. Recently, he read an article in Food & Wine about the trend of using brisket instead of chuck in burgers. 
  3. After realizing the actual cost and challenges of transporting poultry from Mississippi, Wilson decided to buy chicken locally from an Amish Farm in Pennsylvania.  

Restaurants are constantly striving to optimize their operations and overcoming challenges in procurement is just one of them.  To learn more about how to manage your vendors, read this article about vendor relationship management

Scott Youkilis is a former restauranteur. His unique perspectives as an operator helps his peers leverage AP to manage their businesses.

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