While it may seem ideal, zero shrink means you’re underselling and missing opportunity.

Count today’s food trends—farm-to-table, vegan, vegetarian, raw, paleo, organic; they all require ingredients have one thing in common: freshness. For full-service restaurants, the fresh-food factor is often the biggest driver for increased traffic and new demographics.

But, as you likely know, there are challenges when it comes to ordering, prepping and serving fresh food. The biggest is food shrink—or waste. Ironically, perhaps, shrink is on the rise. Some experts say reducing shrink can cut a restaurant’s operating costs by 15 to 20 percent, but determining the amount of “acceptable” shrinkage can be tough.

At a full-service restaurant, you can’t have “zero” food shrink. While it may seem ideal, zero shrink means you’re underselling and missing opportunity. At the same time, you don’t want to be over-ordering and under-using. Perishable items have a “use-by” date and employees often simply aren’t completely clear about what was ordered when and what needs to be used by a certain date.

A chef might pull seafood from the walk-in that has several more days in the cooler while leaving a great batch that only has a day or two left. Checking items for use-by dates isn’t always top-of-mind in a busy kitchen.

Here, the top 3 “shrink” culprits:

Labeling: Labels might be the last thing you’re thinking about, honestly. You order the food; staff unloads it and stores it as quickly as possible. But labels should be the compass that guides employees once they’re in the kitchen. if you haven’t automated labeling, it’s long overdue. Hand-written labels are an invitation to either a food safety issue or a food shrinkage issue. Consistent, standardized labeling will make inventory rotation so much easier—employees know exactly where to look for the expiration date and can store items accordingly just like a grocery store might. Items whose use-by dates are approaching are placed in the front of the walk-in, and newer items go behind those. Employees select what’s at the front, instead of selecting randomly. 

Task Tracker: Once your labels are automated—and legible—it’s time to ensure kitchen employees are taking the time to check inventory before prepping and cooking. Ditch the pen-and-paper “to do” checklists for employees and utilize a digital standardized checklist. Laptops and portable printers help employees record and track what they’re doing while they work—allowing operators to track what’s being used and sold. A digital checklist also ensures employee accountability, making “forgery” of checklists more difficult.

Temperature Tracking: The last culprit for food shrinkage is an equipment malfunction. Experts estimate restaurants experience about two equipment failures each year, resulting in roughly $10,000 in lost inventory each time. Placing temperature sensors in coolers give extra information to operators. When did the equipment malfunction, exactly? How long has the inventory been at unsafe temperatures? Is the food safe to serve?

Today’s temperature tracking sensors are easily installed and continually log temps, sending out alerts via text and email to selected employees if a certain temperature threshold is breached. That way, operators and employees can move food to other coolers and call a technician to check the equipment. Temperature tracking can save thousands of dollars each year in food shrink.

These tips will get your food shrinkage number where it needs to be—low enough that you’re saving money, but not so low that you’re missing opportunity. Let technology and automation help you find the “sweet spot.” 

Expert Takes, Feature