Remember your college years? I sure do. Chances are that if you went to college or university you had an after school job if you wanted to make a little extra money to offset the outrageous book costs (or maybe just your night life costs). And luckily, restaurants are always willing to hire college kids.
If you did work in a restaurant, you probably remember the “back-of-the-house.” Some of the most colorful conversations and characters reside there in thousands of restaurants across the country to this day. With all the interesting fellow employees and customers to interact with, as a server I rarely paid attention to product specs and their (in)consistency. It never occurred to me that restaurants, whether they are fast food or sit down, actually source ingredients with a physical specification in mind.
What if I told you that there are restaurants out there whose physical specs are merely made on a “handshake.” Properly set physical specs can give a restaurant a competitive edge in regards to costs, throughput, yields, turning tables, and most importantly, food safety.
Let’s take a look at an example where physical specs can make a huge difference:
I should take this opportunity to state that achieving Food Safety is NOT easy. It takes a great deal of planning, ongoing training, monitoring, verifying, and validating each and every process step and their hazards. All you have to do is turn on the news to hear about the most recent restaurants chains and their problems with their suppliers. These are textbook examples of bad GMP’s (Good Manufacturing Practices), and how NOT to achieve food safety awareness in your restaurants. Instead of focusing on product specifications of their raw ingredients and their respective food safety hazards, many trendy restaurants opt to focus on their marketing regarding sustainably sourced foods. Why? Because our generation is overly focused on cool marketing adjectives like “All Natural” and “Local” rather than eating safe food.
Consistent Meat Weight + Consistent Temp + Consistent Time = Food Safe Product (and Profit)
One of the aspects of food safety that is often overlooked is the actual physical size of the raw materials. You may think, “Well, DUH, I don’t want to give away money.”
Yes, that is true, but let me phrase it to you another way that could save you hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuits, and maybe even a prison sentence.
Let’s take a look at a restaurant chain’s recipe development. Someone, somewhere, suggests a fabulous new chicken breast recipe, and the restaurant's corporate test kitchen decides to try it out. They source all the items they think they need, plus a few wildcards (is mint good in a BBQ chicken sandwich? Who knows? Let’s give ‘er a go!), and get to work.
But recipe creation isn’t just ingredients, is it? It’s sizes, weights, cooking times, doneness levels…there’s a lot that goes into that BBQ chicken breast sandwich you ate in 14 seconds without a second thought.
So now the test kitchen has gotten into it—they dream about this stuff—and all the flavors need to be perfect, the mouth feel needs to be perfect, the umami of it all needs to be perfect, and they also need to determine the magic equation for for cooking that particular 5-6 oz chicken breast: X minutes to achieve an internal temperature of 165F at Y oven temperature, to make sure it’s juicy & flavorful, while still being cooked well enough to be safe.
They test it hundreds of times. They tweak it. They poke it. They argue with each other. They argue with their family when they make it at home. They have strange dreams about chickens and text each other at 4 in the morning. They toss half of the recipe out and start over. They do things to that recipe you don’t even want to know about.
And then, one day, they declare it The Most Perfect Chicken Breast Recipe Ever, or The MPCBRE.
And then the work starts again, because now they need to figure out how to perfectly replicate this recipe they spent months, sometimes years, developing, the one that looks perfect on the plate, that tastes the best to the majority of the public, and that is the safest according to industry best practices, in their hundreds or thousands of units across the globe, with their hundreds of thousands of employees with various levels of experience, who can’t adjust that recipe without compromising quality.
That can only happen with a defined physical spec consistently met, every time, by the restaurant’s suppliers. So the restaurant sends the correct physical specs, weight of the chicken breast, shape if it’s a more processed item (round to fit a bun, or varied shapes for fried chicken chunks, for example), thickness, even percentage of fat content, to their always on-top-of-it suppliers, who have had to train their employees on how to prepare the new item for their very important restaurant chain client.
Finally, the restaurant sends The MPCBRE off to their units, along with the correct suppliers they should buy the perfectly weighted, shaped chicken breast from. Huzzah! The kitchen staff rejoices (this might be a bit of hyperbole)! A new recipe! The marketing and publicity departments fulfill their lifelong dreams of working on a national Most Perfect Chicken Breast Recipe Ever campaign, and it goes viral, and the public arrives, their mouths watering, to try The MPCBRE.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, if you or your food supplier changes just one of those variables? Everything. Guest Experience, Food Safety, Throughput, and Profit.
In the case of inconsistent meat weight, this would clearly be the case of “Raw Material Deviation” or just plain “Non-Compliance” from the restaurant supplier. It typically happens because the supplier of the raw product (e.g. Raw Beef or Chicken) has lax quality control or oversight and is not consistently cutting the raw meat properly.
The employees are trained to cook The MPCBRE for a set length of time, at a set temperature, and they’re busy. So they grab a chicken breast and they cook it the way they’ve been trained in order to get it out the guest in the amount of time their bosses have told them they must achieve, and…do you think they’re weighing every chicken breast on the line? Of course not. That is the supplier’s job. That’s why the physical spec was set to begin with.
What happens when that chicken breast is too small? It’s overcooked and the guest is unhappy. Maybe they tell a manager. That’s a good outcome. The manager comps their meal, or provides a new one, and apologizes, and, if they have the proper data management system in place, he or she lets corporate know that the chicken size spec isn’t being met by Supplier X. Now maybe that guest will return, and the supplier is taken to task by corporate, and consistency improves across the chain.
Or, the guest doesn’t tell a manager and simply doesn’t return and the supplier quality problem continues with overcooked chicken and more guests are disappointed and profits begin to suffer and everyone involved in the recipe creation and marketing effort is to blame. That’s bad enough.
But what happens when that chicken breast is too large?
That’s a bigger problem, because now the amount of cooking time isn’t long enough, the heat necessary to penetrate the larger pieces of chicken may not be enough, and your restaurant chef will be left with a returned MPCBRE due to pink centers. You’ll then have customer complaints, and pictures on Twitter of raw chicken in your awesome MPCBRE. And that’s best-case scenario.
Notifications of foodborne illness outbreaks. You just shuddered, didn’t you? We all did. Because now that’s not just guest experience, wasted product, and lost money, that’s a threat to public safety and possible lawsuits, and now the restaurant brand itself is in jeopardy.
All because of that oft overlooked physical spec.
Please note that this isn’t my silver bullet to your restaurant problems. Sure, spec sizes won’t solve all of your back-of-the-house problems, there’s still that pesky hand-washing issue to contend with, but at least your guests aren’t complaining about portion size, or maybe salmonella, and your MPCBRE can go on to become the star of the restaurant world, even with that odd-yet-strangely-compelling touch of mint in the BBQ sauce, it deserves to be.