Flying Blind: The Black Box of Kitchen Prep
There are hidden errors and inefficiencies within the food preparation process in nearly every kitchen, and they often prevent restaurants from maximizing their margins and the quality of the product they produce.
Published in Hospitality Technology on April 6, 2021
Let’s get out of the kitchen for a minute, and take a flight together. You’ll be a passenger on a plane I’m flying from New York to Los Angeles. No weather issues are reported, I’ve just completed my pilot’s training (don’t worry, I know what I’m doing…I think), and the plane itself is in good working order.
You know for certain where we’re departing from. And I can guarantee you that we’ll arrive in Los Angeles safe and sound. Comfortable yet? Good. So we’re off.
But it turns out that once we’re in the air, I’m free to take whatever path I choose. I know directionally where I’m headed, but I take what I think are a few shortcuts (they aren’t), don’t know about some turbulence I could avoid, maybe veer off course from time to time while distracted by my chatty co-pilot. And, because no one is tracking my flight path, I take a long and circuitous route that adds hours to our journey, burns way too much of our fuel, and even causes us to run out of little cocktail bottles. Sure, we ultimately reach the destination, but the course we took made it an incredibly inefficient journey.
In many ways, you could say we were flying blind. And, now that we’re back in our kitchen, we need to do everything we can to ensure that restaurant operations aren’t doing the same.
I’ve been deeply engaged in the study of kitchen operations, and I know managers and operators have done a solid job in fixing the inefficient processes that are visible to them. But our work has also revealed one consistent finding: there are hidden errors and inefficiencies within the food preparation process in nearly every kitchen, and they often prevent restaurants from maximizing their margins and the quality of the product they produce. Identifying the deepest 20% of inefficiencies is perhaps the most difficult, but can often mean the difference between profit and loss.
Where's The Savings?
The trick is where to find them. My advice: the center of your process likely holds the most hidden value.
In commercial kitchens, like in that fantasy flight we just took, the beginning and end of the food preparation process is typically well understood by operators. Raw ingredients come through the back of the house, and menu items are delivered out the front. But what happens in between is where most of the inefficiencies occur. Area managers and store leaders can review reports that show, for example, how much food they purchase, how much food was used, and what they sold. Using these data points, they can compare ideal food cost to actual food cost and identify if there are enormous leaks in the process of assembling and cooking food. However, those reports don’t reveal where those leaks are occurring. Processes are created and crew members are trained, but there is typically no data tracking whether those processes are being followed properly…or whether they were even the most efficient or effective processes to begin with.
It’s a classic example of what operators call a black box, where we can clearly see the inputs and outputs of a system but what happens in the middle is often a mystery.
This can be a source of frustration for the restaurant industry. Most QSR chains are running on very thin margins, and can ill afford to waste time, food or money. Store managers are tasked with making sure kitchens are operating smoothly, but they are often forced to spend most of their time dealing with labor issues. The kitchen itself, while seeming as if it is producing food the right way, is often rife with inefficiencies and mistakes.
To be clear, this is not always the fault of those managers. Data simply isn’t being captured in the kitchen to determine whether costs are being controlled and whether food is being cooked in the best way possible. Kitchens have long oral histories, with undocumented process changes - often shortcuts - occurring invisibly over time and mistakenly passed from crew member to crew member. Managers and area coaches are often unaware of these changes and their impact because they don’t have the data to correct themselves. Corporate leaders believe that everyone adheres closely to their published specifications to later find there is a vast difference between what the manual says and daily execution.
All of this is happening in that black box, making it challenging for managers to find and address the root cause.
That no longer has to be the case. Technology and data integration have the power to open that black box. Digital systems and workflows that measure the process of creating food can capture food prep data, identify the leaks, streamline operations, guide crew members in real time, and eliminate the mysteries that often push restaurants to the brink.
At Perfect Company, we’ve seen the immediate financial impact these integrated workflows can have on a restaurant’s bottom line. For example, in the very first store in which we implemented our Perfect Kitchen technology, we quickly realized that food was being wasted to the tune of close to $20,000 a year. And the reason was so simple yet hidden from sight: our data was able to demonstrate how a crew member who had been working there for 10 years had been preparing an item slightly wrong, and the store manager had no idea because the data on the process was previously not available to him.
Even connected systems can become inefficient without proper measurement, and impact top-line revenue. Another restaurant, an incredibly busy store doing about $3 million in revenue, was using an excellent connected fryer for several of their menu items. Unseen by management, someone in the crew had noticed that if they fried a certain item using a different menu button, it shaved about 15 seconds off of cooking time. It would help get the food out faster, which seemed like a win to the busy kitchen, but the item was actually undercooked. This “solution” spread like wildfire through the restaurant, with other employees taking similar shortcuts. Our data immediately flagged the sudden shift in menu item execution at the fryer. By day three, the store manager spoke with the crew and corrected the fryer shortcut.
Visibility, and the ability to measure what happens in the kitchen, can be the difference between profitability and failure. Stores that implement and adopt these real-time process systems, with kitchen screens prompting crew members and providing feedback to them and management to identify those hidden inefficiencies, are able to locate those crucial leaks before they happen. Those improvements are often the hardest to find, but the most important to enable sustainable success.
It’s an incredibly exciting proposition that has the potential to change the way our restaurants operate. We can open the black box of food preparation to reveal the secrets of making the best (and most profitable) food we can. We can stop flying blind and help our crews and managers become better pilots in the kitchen. That’s a journey that’s more than worth taking.