A prep strategy of making smaller amounts of food multiple times daily — as opposed to fewer larger batches — can drive labor costs skyward. But according to John Mountford, an area director at Austin, Texas-based Chuy’s, sticking to small batches yields better food, and better food leads to greater sales.
“Everything we make is produced with a ‘(make) less, more often’ mentality,” said Mountford, who oversees the 45-unit chain’s southeastern U.S. restaurants. “We can’t afford to not make every tortilla by hand, every batch of meat and beans fresh, multiple times, throughout the day. We have to have a point of difference and freshness is ours.”
Mountford said the early kitchen crew at Chuy’s faces “a hefty prep list of yeoman’s work.” Over the course of a day, tortilla makers will hand roll and press thousands of white- and blue-corn tortillas, always matching output to the pace of business. About a dozen times a day, 10-pound batches of ground beef are fried and seasoned in a tilt skillet, while some 10 cases of avocados become guacamole.
“It sound like insanity to some, but that’s the cornerstone of our business,” Mountford said. “When you’re doing an average of $100,000 per unit every week, you can run 14-percent labor.”
Abe Hollands, chief operating officer of 60-unit Café Rio Mexican Grill, didn’t disclose the fast-casual chain’s average labor cost, but like Mountford, he said super-high volume manages it. The chain’s Utah units, near its Salt Lake City headquarters, average $3 million in annual sales, which Hollands says cover the labor investment. “If you serve great food with great energy, sales go up,” he said.
On a daily basis, a Café Rio staff will shred 10 cases of lettuce, cook and pull 200 pounds of pork for barbacoa, turn 300 or more pounds of flour into fresh tortillas and squeeze 1,000 fresh limes.
“When we do things right our food not only tastes fantastic, but our food cost is also good,” Hollands said.
Doing it right, he added, starts with wise menu engineering to ensure any ingredient brought in has multiple purposes, and that each labor-intense, scratch-made sauce is used in several recipes.
“We mother our products,” he said, meaning base production items, such as sauces, are altered in accordance to a variety of dishes. “What we do is layer our food from a bunch of simple ingredients that we combine to make other unique recipes.”
When operating ideally, both men said their restaurants’ ingredients move from storage to production, to finished dishes and to guests’ plates — but never back to storage.
“That’s the logic of the ‘less, more often’ mentality,” Mountford began. “If it’s getting near the end of the night and we’re running out of guacamole, we make a small batch from six avocados, not a large one that we put into the cooler.”
While many restaurants tout small-batch or “scratch” cooking, Mountford said that it doesn’t always mean “a la minute,” as it’s done at Chuy’s.
“Scratch cooking could be making tortillas fresh in the restaurant but using them over the course of three days,” he said. “Frying tacos and tortilla chips is a running duty here, so we never overproduce. We hate waste.”
Such challenging production standards won’t work without constant communication and strategy, Mountford and Hollands agree. Mountford said each day’s sales totals are compared with production results in order to tweak the next day’s pars. To ensure pars are followed, morning, mid-shift and evening managers spend at least 20 percent of their time in the kitchen to ensure compliance and consistency.
Dave Gagnon, CEO at Café Rio, said the company recently opened its CRAFT Institute (Café Rio Advanced Training), to which the chain’s general managers and sauce cooks travel for instruction. In each restaurant, sauce cooks hand down that training to assistants who shadow them throughout each shift. “We want the red sauce to taste the same in Salt Lake as it does in Montana,” Gagnon said.
Mountford admitted that such a fast and furious production pace adds stress to Chuy’s kitchens, so he said making the job fun is essential to minimizing turnover.
“Our No. 1 labor saving device is increased morale,” said Mountford, adding that some employees at the chain’s oldest stores have logged 25 years. “Happy people work hard and are proud to be there. You take care of them, and you’ll get all the efficiency you’ll ever need.”