On the surface, scratch cooking seems like a pretty straightforward process for most foodservice operators. But it is important to understand how scratch cooking impacts product consistency and quality, food safety, labor and more.
Just like open kitchens, a topic I wrote about in my last blog post, many foodservice professionals may consider scratch production another one of those “are you crazy?” design features. That’s because switching to scratch production adds a significant level of complexity to most foodservice operations that impact such areas as:
- Food cost
- Product consistency and quality
- Food safety
- Facility space, including storage
- Equipment and smallwares costs
Being an occasional contrarian, I will also say that operators going with scratch cooking can gain significant operational advantages in each of these same areas if they do it right. Allow me to explain.
On one side of the spectrum, restaurants that incorporate scratch production risk compromising product quality and consistency in the stores if they are not careful and fail to properly manage the human element. To combat this risk, foodservice operators need to thoroughly train their staff and develop detailed processes and procedures, including how to use the equipment and smallwares in preparing each ingredient and recipe. On the positive side, it is hard to beat the quality of a freshly made menu item. Without a doubt, the less time between when the product is made and actual consumption, the better the quality should be; providing that the restaurant controls all other variables.
The more staff handle a product in the different phases of production, the greater the risk of compromising food safety. Nothing is safer than opening a can, placing its contents in a pan and serving it from there. Many products fit this description, including sauces, soups and vegetables, among countless others.
While this approach can help with consistency and food safety, it does introduce other potential challenges. For example, serving previously prepared food items can lead to a need for greater storage space to handle the additional SKUs. And having more items to manage can lead to product shortages or excesses, the latter of which can lead to inventory items laying in storage longer than appropriate thus impacting inventory costs and quality. A good inventory system can help with this issue. Some concepts have gone to sophisticated inventory management systems to support their operations, including using scanners to receive and reconcile inventory levels.
Facility space is another area that scratch production can impact. Typically producing from scratch requires more floor space for production. This could come by way of additional prep stations, equipment and smallwares. Appropriate floor space design and storage systems can help reduce or eliminate the impact in this area.
Culinary staff needs to control many factors, such as cooking and holding time, component synchronization on the plate, and plate synchronization for the order, among others. It is easy to overlook order synchronization as you consider the true impact of scratch prep. It may be a great idea as the components start, but unless the product is good when it is consumed, it does not matter.
Last but not least, is the impact scratch cooking can have on labor usage and cost.This area is so rich and complex that I am going to discuss it in my next blog post. In this instance the discussion must explore how labor impacts many of the other areas presented in this article. On the good side, however, labor is one of those areas that operators can quantify through a detailed return-on-investment analysis to truly understand the impact.
In my nearly 30 years in the foodservice industry, I have found out that when it comes to quality what you do upstream in the prep process does not matter much. The battle for product quality and consistency is won or lost during final production, just before the customer receives the product. A restaurant can have the greatest menu made from old family recipes but if staff can’t properly prep, cook and assemble the end product the operation will lose the quality and consistency battle.
So for those concepts that are doing or are considering engaging in scratch production, the one caution I offer them is to make sure that you consider all the areas involved in this decision, some of which were reviewed here. But more importantly, make sure that your customers give you credit for the perceived or real quality benefits scratch cooking can bring a concept and that the differentiating points brought about by using scratch production processes drive sales and profits for the concept. Otherwise, you are just crazy to do it.