The art – and science – of professional catering

Among the approximately 60-100 emails and text messages I receive daily are complaints about menu items that were unavailable at a restaurant. A visit to almost any grocery store will confirm that product shortages are real, and the problem is no less of a problem for our local restaurants. The disappearance of foodstuffs that were in abundance only a few years ago can be attributed to many factors. I’ll just leave that there. Let’s move on…

Most of the things I refer to here on this page, on, and on the radio have been learned from my experience owning or partnering restaurants and nightclubs in and around the Washington, DC area. . In my most recent restaurant, I used to announce during the daily queues (a quick meeting of waiters/staff before a shift): “This is not a drill! We are professionals. If he please act like one!” They laughed, but what they didn’t know was that those words applied to me more than they ever would to them. My successes (and failures) had a direct impact on all of their bank accounts. Employees could just walk out if they wanted to. If I got out, I would go to jail.

Back to ordering food: one of our specialties at my BBQ was hickory smoked ribs. They weren’t cheap even then, and they took about 12 hours to cook in the smokehouse. How many of these expensive foods should we prepare this far in advance? On our very first day, everyone could guess. And just three hours after turning the key, we ran out. Now, if it had been fries, burgers, or pork chops, we’d have them ready in no time (there was a grocery store just around the corner). But no ribs. Seemed awkward asking customers to wait 12 hours for their entrees. I was embarrassed. And that’s where I learned to keep track of things. Yes, food order shortages are inevitable these days, but at least some problems can be minimized by controlling what’s already in the kitchen.

Conservators call these calculations “pars”. In golf, this means the predetermined number of strokes a player must make on each hole. In restaurant lingo, this is the predetermined amount of produce a restaurant should have on hand to complete a successful service. The number is based on sales history, weather and other factors such as holidays etc. If you’re shooting below par in golf, you’re a hero. But I was no hero at our partially ribless grand opening.

Fans of Food Network’s ‘Restaurant Impossible’ watch as chef Robert Irvine drags a failing owner down the walk-in closet and points at boxes and boxes of inventory. “Here’s your money!” he told them. One of the fixes is a smaller menu that requires fewer perishables on hand. Another solution is to track inventory with weekly, monthly, and yearly sheets that record exactly how much of each menu item was sold that day. A savvy executive chef or head chef can then extrapolate how many New York strips, tomatoes, corndogs, green beans, or chicken wings he might need for next Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Or Sunday. You had the idea. He or she can adjust food orders, delivery times, and average inventory based on this history. The longer a restaurant has been in business, the more accurate this system becomes as averages become trends. While I certainly got barbecue sauce all over my face on that fateful grand opening, in my defense, it was our very first day. Not much history to follow.

There are computer systems that take much of the drudgery out of keeping a reasonable inventory. Point of Sale – aka POS – systems, if programmed correctly, can compare the sales of each individual item or ingredient to similar days in the past. This becomes especially useful when a menu item contains a number of ingredients. A large salad, for example, may involve ingredients ordered from several different vendors, each in different weights and quantities. If the software is programmed to know exactly how many carrots, celery, feta cheese, romaine lettuce, cucumber, grape tomatoes, croutons, sunflower seeds, red peppers, olives, bean sprouts and avocado (not to mention the dressing ingredients) go into every large salad, and then each time a server sends an order to the kitchen, the system adds that exact amount to the upcoming order, along with the day and lettuce sale time.

Restoring is much more than being able to make food. Careful attention to details like slices and servings is an important factor in ensuring success. It’s details like these that make me cringe when someone says, “Aunt Murlene makes really good pancakes!” She should open a restaurant! Unless Aunt Murlene is independently wealthy, she will have to master the calculations and behind-the-scenes procedures that will help her stay in business. In the immortal words of longtime restaurateur Paula Deen, “It’s not just about the cooking!”

Bob Yesbek writes and talks about beach food nonstop. He can be reached at [email protected]