Portion control or perish

April 21, 2004

Maybe I'm easily shocked, but every time a pizza operator tells me, "We don't portion control our cheese or toppings," my jaw drops.

Amid a full-blown price crisis like the industry has never seen, at least half the operators I interview say they "free-throw" toppings because measuring and weighing is too restrictive in a real-world pizza kitchen. Others say they don't want to spend $250-$500 on an electronic scale, and one operator supplied this excuse: "I want my cooks to add their personality to each pizza, so I don't have them weigh anything."

(My question is this: What do you want more of: personality or profit? But I digress.)

How much higher do costs have to rise before these operators get serious about protecting their margins—much less their already meager profits? And if losing money unnecessarily wasn't bad enough, what about the product inconsistency issues created by a lack of portion controls? If I'm the customer, I'll take consistency over personality any day. I want to know what I'm getting.

Lest you

Steve Coomes, Senior Editor

think I'm judging harshly, let me share my own experience. Weighing out cheese and toppings is pure Easy Street compared to what I went through as a chef for a gourmet restaurant company.

For example, every day I sliced up $11-a-pound (1990 prices, when I last cooked professionally) veal rounds into 2.5-ounce portions—my allowable margin of error was a quarter of an ounce. Salmon never arrived in filets, rather I broke down whole fish, which I weighed coming in the door and yield tested after portioning.

Sounds like fun, eh?

If you think we scaled the expensive stuff only ... every portion of pasta was weighed and every bit of sauce or salad dressing was measured. If a pasta dish included chicken and mushrooms, both were weighed and placed in a portion-control cup.

And as if this weren't fun enough, to ensure we were portioning correctly, the company's executive chef would drop by unannounced, grab a scale and start a surprise inspection. It didn't matter whether it was a 6-ounce portion of fettuccini or a 16-ounce sirloin steak, all portions were regarded with equal value because he saw the food for what it was—edible, perishable cash.

In his mind, portion controls ensured profit margins were met and customers got what they expected time after time after time. Product consistency meant the food looked right on the dinner plate and the food cost was correct on the P&L.

Think such practices were a bit legalistic? I'd say the results spoke for themselves: Over the course of one quarter, our food cost dropped from 32 percent to 28 percent (which is ridiculously low for a fine-dining restaurant), and the lunch shift I supervised won the first of what became three straight "best lunch in Louisville" awards.

It's just a habit

The first time the manager at that restaurant announced we were starting a portion control program everyone called it ridiculous. We said it would take too much time and wouldn't make any difference in food cost. We believed we were experienced enough to free-throw all the ingredients for every dish we cooked and still meet recipe specs.

To that remark, the boss said, "You're all smoking hash."

He was right ... not about the hash, but about his suspicion we were way off from the recipes. When we used the scale to see if we were close, we were shocked at the variance.

Long story short: We started portion controlling everything, and over time it became second nature to the staff.

Fast-forward to 1999: At my first Pizza Expo, I saw "Big Dave" Ostrander telling a standing-room-only crowd that using plastic cups to portion-control cheese would save them money. Some listened, others wrinkled their noses.

Five years later at this year's Expo in March, Ostrander again pounded the portion control pulpit while preaching the same message—only this time his tone was more ominous. That day, the block price of cheese jumped 6 cents to $1.93 (27 cents cheaper than it is now at $2.20), and he warned the crowd that some of them would be out of business soon if they didn't start weighing and measuring.

Run the numbers for yourself

Numbers never lie. Want proof? Let's run a basic example of how much money you might be losing on cheese.

Compared to April 2003, block prices are a buck a pound higher this year. So let's say you get a fixed cheese price of 30 cents over block ($2.20 + 30 = $2.50). If you're putting a half-pound of cheese on each large pie, you're paying 65 cents more per pizza than 12 months ago.

Let's carry it a step further. Say your shop sells 1,200 large pizzas a week. That sucks $780 right from the bottom line. Should the block cheese price hold at $2.20 for a month (and judging by milk futures, the block price should remain well above $2 through June), the losses add up to $3,120.

Think my math too gloomy? Then let's be optimistic and say you'll lose only half that amount each month over the course of a year. That still adds up to $18,720, which is around half the profit the average pizzeria ($550,000 in gross sales) will make this year.

start quoteEvery single percent you save on food cost drops clear to the bottom line. If your shop is that average $550,000 earner, that means you get $5,500 by curbing costs just 1 percent. If you're free-throwing, I'll bet a good portion control system will save you 2 percent to 3 percent—$11,000 to $16,500.end quote

There are several ways operators can battle this price problem:

1. Raise menu prices (which many have).

2. Cheat the customer by putting less cheese and meat on the pizzas (which no one should).

3. Shop for cheaper cheese (which not only will be hard to find but ultimately detrimental to your product).

4. Begin a strict portion control regimen on all cheeses and toppings (See our Toppings Guide for great advice on how to do this.)

5. Combine numbers 1 and 4 for optimum results.

Every single percent you save on food cost drops clear to the bottom line. If your shop is that average $550,000 earner, that means you get $5,500 by curbing costs just 1 percent. If you're free-throwing, I'll bet a good portion control system will save you 2 percent to 3 percent—$11,000 to $16,500.

So go ahead and bite the bullet and get some portion control scales. The best and most durable cost $500—less than you're losing in cheese costs per week. You can get the plastic cups at any discount store for pennies apiece.

For some, this will mean added profits, but for others it's a matter of staying in business.

Read other commentaries ...
* Papa John takes a pay cut, and shares it with his staff
* Will 2004 be the year the pizza industry finally raises prices?
* ANALYSIS: Good numbers for Domino's Pizza, but celebrations aren't yet in order
* See you in Las Vegas ... just not at Pizza Expo
* Pizza passion, police and pains in the neck
* Count a pizza's sales potential before counting its carbs and calories
* ANALYSIS: Grote's got Donatos Pizzeria back, but now what?

Topics: Cheese , Commentary

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