how do successful restaurants run?



i know this sounds like a stupid question but how do cook to order restaurants work? how often do they have to throw away food? and do they keep the leftovers for the next day(/s?)

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Tons of experience. Knowing when you need to reduce ordering, when to increase. Yes, things need to be thrown away, but smart ordering keeps that down. And just like your own grocery shopping, stocking up on non perishables when there’s a good deal. Frozen foods are a restaurant’s best friend. But, that can be sacrificing quality, so they need to find a balance.

Make friends with other restaurants so when you run out of something, they got you.

Leftovers? Hell yeah. Do you know what potato skins are? Yesterday’s baked potatoes.

Food costs are pretty minimal compared to labor costs though. That’s why restaurants have staffing that juuuuust covers the needs, so when one person calls in, they’re short.

There’s a million things going on. Juggling them is an art. Not everyone can do it. Did you know that white tablecloths and napkins are cheaper to have laundered?

I have worked in restaurants for ten years, successful and not. Throwing away food is a regular thing. This is limited my good management and knowing what events are happening in the community so as to increase or reduce food prepared before shifts. Prepared foods have a shelf life just like in grocery stores. Some are end of day, some are 1 day and range to several days out depending on how easy they spoil. Managers knowing that religious holidays coming up that limit intake of meats or sweets may not order as many of those in the food shipment beforehand.

They also take this information and use it for staffing as well. If they feel like it will be slow because there’s a food festival happening down the street. Or increase staff for holidays like Mother’s Day when moms don’t really want to cook.

But too be completely honest, it is a guessing game. Kind of like the Price is Right. Managers guess the most amount of food or staff they can have for a shift without going over. Guess too low and you don’t have enough for customer demand. Guess too high and you have to throw away food and send staff home after an hour.

Most restaurants operate barely breaking even, some of them are well into the red by the time they have to shut down.

There’s not a lot of money in the restaurant business – it’s very costly and labor intensive.

The successful ones usually have one or two things going on:

(1) they actually do have a lot of guests and therefore are able to keep up with the costs and can expand.

(2) the owner is really rich and doesn’t care about hemorrhaging money.

TLDR; you gotta have a high volume of guests just to stay open, and an even higher number to make profits.

A big part of it is in the design of the menu.
Chicken, beef and pork can be utilized in many different dishes.
Ten ingredients can create multiple dishes.

General operation of restaurants

When your order is taken it’s put into a computer which has software that breaks that order down into component parts.

The kitchen is broken down into “stations”. The exact delineation of the stations (how many, what they are responsible for, etc) depends on the cuisine, restaurant size, etc, but as an example you might have: a fry station, grill, saute, someone assembling salads and deserts. These stations may be staffed by one or more people. Each station has a defined set of responsibilities that make up the whole of a dinner.

So when you order that aged prime new york strip with asparagus and a béarnaise sauce and crispy pomme frites, it gets broken down into multiple tickets, each routed to the specific “station” that needs to cook it. The grill station knows they need to grab a new york strip and cook it medium rare, the sauté (usually the guy in charge of the kitchen that night) knows to broil some asparagus and plate it with béarnaise sauce, and the fry station knows to drop the fries in the fryer.

The real key is timing this all out, sophisticated kitchen software can help with this, but even with paper tickets a good chef can articulate the timing and a well practiced team knows it anyways. The order comes in at 8:24pm, grill knows the steaks are done in 11 minutes, asparagus done in 12 minutes, and fries done in about 15 minutes (béarnaise is probably already done and just waiting to be sauced). So the fries are going in immediately, but saute and the grill might wait a couple of minutes to time it closer.

As elements get done they are often passed to the expeditor or expedite line. It’s basically a station, often with the primary serving dishes and garnishes, where the various independent elements from the multiple stations are combined on a plate in a pleasing manner. The person filling this role can be a variety of people (including someone working at another station like the saute chef in smaller kitchens) but the point is, there is usually one person who assembles all the elements together, does a final quality check, and makes it look nice before a waiter takes it (think Gordon Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen).

As you can imagine, in order to efficiently operationalize a kitchen you have to be thoughtful of the “how” it gets made. The example above involves 3 different stations and the food comes out pretty close to each other. The most labor intensive part is probably the béarnaise but, as noted, that can be made before kitchen service begins and just sits warm for the night. For things that take a long time to cook, there are often tricks you can use to kind of “stage” the food until later before opening for service. For instance baked potatoes can largely just sit in a warmer in tinfoil waiting to be used, Standing Rib Roast you can cook below rare and then just slice a serving off and quickly “warm” it to the desired level of doneness, in-house pastries and bread goods are made that morning (the pastry chef is often walking out, done for the day, around when everyone else is just showing up to work).

You don’t want to overprep but with history (and again, ordering software can help with this) you can get a pretty good idea of how many baked potatoes you go through in an average Friday night and plan accordingly. If it’s unusually busy at 7:30 you might try to prep a few extra incase you get walk-ins at 9:30 and you think you might be low, but in some cases restaurants just accept running out (if it’s that late).

Pricing is easy. If you do a good job designing the menu and train your kitchen staff competently, you know exactly how much our example meal costs. There’s some variance in portioning (it’s possible to get more or less asparagus or béarnaise sauce) but keep in mind these people cook this meal over and over and over. If you can retain staff they get practiced enough that portions and cooking gets consistent as well.

As a result you can keep food waste usually pretty small. Some items are more sensitive than most, frozen fries aren’t going to be wasted, but fish isn’t going to last very long.

For nice restaurants using fresh ingredients you’ll frequently see specials, stripped down menus, and changing menus to accommodate for that. Too much asparagus? Well it’s not just a side dish anymore, let’s maybe do an asparagus tips salad (and cut off the now woody ends), that’ll at least trim our potential food waste down. Ordered some bluefin tuna? You’d rather run out by Sunday night service than have some left Monday morning.

For less nice restaurants (think franchises) they’re going to lean away from fresh ingredients at risk of spoiling. Glancing quickly at TGIF’s menu, their seafood consists of fried cod filets, various forms of shrimp, and two salmon dishes (one heavily sauced) that I’m almost positive come to the store frozen. That’s how those chain restaurants get away with such sprawling menus, it’s all designed to not be sensitive to spoiling and having to be tossed (heavily saucing things is a way to hide this. Lots of sauces/glazes promote a restaurant feel because home cooks don’t want to fuss with the effort while simultaneously doing a good job of covering up mediocre proteins that are frozen so you can keep food costs and waste down).

Worked New York City restaurants for a decade.

Some restaurants (especially in larger restaurant groups) use tracking software. One onion on average weighs 375 grams. When you peel it and cut the ends off, you have 232 grams (the numbers here are made up). Your recipe for uh… French Onion Soup uses 5kg of onions. You know how much 1 kg of onions cost (also plugged into the same software), so now you know how much this recipe costs to make WITHOUT profit. How much profit do you need on this one recipe to cover other costs? Check everything else in the software – how much does your staff cost (25% of your weekly gross?), how much does your monthly rent cost (10% of your monthly?), etc. So many more factors. Charge the appropriate amount so that you don’t go broke.

Almost every restaurant these days uses a Point of Sale System (Toast, Breadcrumb, Clover, Square, etc). Even without paying extra money, they at the very least can tell you how many of each item is ordered on a daily/weekly basis. So you know you sell 40 portions of French Onion Soup a day. So buy enough to prep that many portions, give or take a few extra, and you should be ok! Soup, for instance, can be cooled and reheated the next day safely. Steaks may have been taken out to come to room temperature, but if they haven’t been ordered by a customer, they can be safely cooled again for use the next day… but generally, you only ordered as much as you needed for the day so you should only have so many left over at the end of the day.

There’s all sorts of weird fuckery to get it right, though. Is it supposed to rain this week? Do you have outdoor seating? You don’t, but the guy next door does and it’s supposed to be 75 degrees and sunny all week? Is it the summer and everyone with money went to the Hamptons? Is it the Puerto Rican Day Parade, and you’re on the parade route? This can all be done without software, but then experience comes into play a lot more.

Some restaurants I worked liked to pretty much empty the walk-in every single day – a perfect day is when you pretty much have nothing left, and you start it all over the next day. But the reality of kitchens is such that it’d be pretty hard to do that every day – cooks would hide an extra quart of vinaigrette in the back corner of their low-boy fridge, or they have some picked herbs stored somewhere. There’s a great story by Andrew Carmellini (who runs some very well regarded restaurants) working at Lespinasse, the fanciest of the fanciest French restaurants at the time. His legendary chef, Gray Kunz, demanded that EVERY item on the garde manger station (cold apps, salads, etc) be fresh daily. Lespinasse was in a hotel, and there was a commissary kitchen on like the 19th floor. At the end of the night, when people weren’t looking, he would sneak up there and store some prepared items (referred to as mise-en-place) so that he wouldn’t start from scratch the next day. Otherwise, he and his station partner would be responsible for 117 items of mise of varying complexities (from finely minced shallots to vinaigrettes with cooked components in them).

I love talking about this stuff, so feel free to respond with further questions, and I am sure others can (and will chime in) as well.



Redbull and cigarettes for “breakfast” or the 5 minutes before your shift starts where you have the time for a smoke break. and

management usually underpay, understaff, and overwork the employees

Also projecting sales. That’s why so many of us went under during covid. Impossible to manage not knowing when you’ll be shut down /told to run at 50% capacity etc…

Got to plan ahead with ordering with food and staffing.

During slow season, good restaurants (that aren’t pulling pre-fabricated industrial food from a freezer) will typically use a lot more preserves, pickles and less perishable items.

But yeah, margins in restaurants are shit. A well run restaurant makes 10% profit on gross margin. So a restaurant that grosses $1,000,000 makes about $100,000 in profit. But think how much work it is to make a million dollars worth of $18 burgers, or whatever you sell.

What do you think sunday brunch is for?

Some things I haven’t seen emphasized yet:

A restaurant’s staff is split into “back of house” and “front of house.” “Front of house” is the servers, bartenders, hosts, all the people the customer sees. Back of house (BOH) is everybody else. Back of house is responsible for ordering, receiving, preparing, and cooking the food, and cleaning the facilities. The work that starts when your order is put in is only a small part of what the BOH does.

BOH has a philosophy called “mise en place” — “everything in its place”. The goal is for as much work as possible to be done before your order is placed, so that when the kitchen receives the ticket, no complex ingredients need to be made from scratch, no one is unsure of how to cook something or what their role is, and every element of the dish is ready to be used. This philosophy extends to the service (the shift) as a whole: a good kitchen knows before the front doors open how many orders of every dish they’ve prepped for. Nearly every cook-to-order restaurant has two shifts of cooks/chefs per service, a prep shift and a line shift. The cooks on the prep shift make complex and time-consuming ingredients like stocks and sauces, and do labor-intensive work like peeling and chopping vegetables, butchering, and washing and picking produce, before the restaurant opens for service. The chefs on the line line cook and assemble those prepped ingredients to order while the restaurant’s open. In many restaurants the hours spent on prep is double the hours spent on the line, meaning 70% of the labor behind your food is done before you sit down. (Of course, for cheap chain restaurants where “service” just consists of reheating frozen food, that number is more like 95%.) As bad-ass as line cooks are when it comes to multitasking and working under pressure, it can be really incredible just to watch the manual dexterity and speed that prep cooks develop. These guys and ladies can get work done in five hours that would take anyone else ten. The products of their labor that can be stored go into cold storage labeled and dated, and the stuff that’s needed for that night’s service goes to the line.

Of course, none of this quite answers the question about how restaurants know how much food to order and whether any is wasted. The BOH also has managers and staff that plan menus, handle ordering and receive deliveries. Ordering just the right amount of a huge variety of products with varying shelf lives, from an array of purveyors with different operating schedules and order minimums, and training and scheduling cooks to process these items as they come in. You might have to order Monday’s fish order on Friday afternoon, for example, requiring you to predict how much halibut you’ll need after three busy days. And if you order too much, you definitely won’t be able to get rid of it by Wednesday, since Monday and Tuesday will probably be your slowest days. In most restaurants, there’s at most one or two BOH managers, and they’re usually also working either line or prep, so it’s a really challenging role. It’s easy to look at a clock on Friday as you’re scrambling to get ready for the busiest night of the week, and realize you’ve missed the cut-off for that fish delivery. Luckily it’s possible to find a weekly rhythm, especially when the core menu isn’t changing quickly. You know about how much of everything you should order on a given day, and your experience the same day last week having to throw out (or, more likely, serving to staff) or running out of an item informs how you might change your order this week.

Since the ideal for the restaurant is for the prep cooks to get every ingredient exactly ready enough to cook, but kept refrigerated, fresh, and within reach until needed, it’s not such a big deal for many components of a dish to be kept for the next day. Food does get tossed (or, more likely, served to staff) when it reaches the end of its life, whether that’s an hour, a day, or a month, depending on what it is, but the close of service isn’t a death-knell for every food item in the restaurant. (Yes, you’re eating “leftovers.”)

The real BOH heroes, though, are the cleaning crew. Shoutout to cleaning staff and porters.

Can anyone comment on the role of buzz, vibe, and publicity?

I don’t know why some restaurants are hot/ booked months in advance, but it’s clear that it’s more than luck, and that some people in the restaurant world seem to be able to pull it off more consistently than others.

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