“startAlong with food costs, kitchen payroll is one of the two most important, easily quantifiable things for a chef to control in his or her kitchen. Like controlling food costs, payroll is a balancing act between what is obviously sufficient, but not practical (i.e., affordable), and what will make the bean counter in your organization happy (at least in the short-term), but cause your erstwhile clients to choose to go elsewhere to spend their dining dollars.

Just as different establishments will have different ideal food costs to try to attain, kitchen payroll in relation to various other factors will vary from business to business. Let’s look at why that is and how we, as operators, can maintain a back of the house staff that’s able to do what needs to be done, without paying more for it than is necessary.


First of all, it’s important to realize that any analogy of food costs and labor costs is far from perfect. With food, we’re dealing with inanimate objects; with labor we hopefully are not. Although food is certainly delicate and needs to be properly handled to get the most out of it, it’s nothing compared to dealing with a cook or steward. We should never forget that literally half of the equation of establishing a productive, efficient, sustainable kitchen staff that we as managers are happy with, is making sure that our workers are happy too.

One of the simplest and most widely used methods of tracking labor costs is to look at them as a percentage of total sales. Although the ideal ratio varies from establishment to establishment, having a kitchen’s hourly staff cost between 12-15% of total sales is considered the norm. While knowing where your kitchen staff costs fall in regards to this range is interesting, it may very well not be the most useful measure of how you are doing in the overall success of your efforts to efficiently staff your kitchen. For one thing, it discounts the importance of your food to beverage sales mix. A labor cost of 14% using this method would tell two very different stories in one restaurant with a 75/25 food/beverage mix and another who’s mix was 60/40. It is also a poor indicator of just what level of efficiency your staff is operating. No matter what this number is, there may very well be adjustments that could and should be made to either reduce your labor costs or increase your crew’s productivity. Ideally, the same changes would accomplish both.

Two other commonly used methods for analyzing kitchen labor focus more on productivity than raw costs. One method looks at the relationship between food sales and kitchen labor hours during a specific period. The other method looks at those same kitchen labor hours, but in relation to the number of covers served during the time frame in question. To calculate the first, simply take the food sales for a specific period (a particular lunch, a day, week, etc.) and divide that by the total number of hours on your kitchen payroll for the same period. For example, if you are open for lunch on a given day from 11:30-2:00, and your sales for that lunch were $3,000, and your total hourly payroll in the kitchen from 9:30-3:00 (be sure to include prep/breakdown time) was 27 hours, then your sales per kitchen labor hour for that lunch was $111.11 ($3,000/27 = $111.11). To calculate the number of covers per labor hour, divide the number of covers during a specific time period by the total number of hours on your kitchen payroll for the same period. Let’s assume that you served 125 guests during the lunch discussed above. That would make your covers per labor hour for that meal 4.6 (125/27 = 4.6).

Either of these methods has a couple of advantages over calculating your kitchen’s labor costs as a percentage of total sales. For one thing, when you are trying to ascertain how well you are running your kitchen in terms of labor, it makes sense to base your analysis on only your food sales. (Another disadvantage of using the total sales in your critique of kitchen labor is that it can give an unscrupulous general manager a tool to divert blame from himself for troublesome numbers to a hapless chef or kitchen manager.) But more importantly, the sales-per-labor-hour and covers-per-labor-hour figures stress what are really the key issues of proper kitchen staffing: productivity and efficiency. Realize that every individual operation will have what can be considered ideal values for these two figures, and that even within that operation, they will probably change over time. More than trying to use them as a stringent guide for making staffing decisions, they should be used as tools to track progress, and to just get you thinking about what you’re really trying to accomplish with your crew.

Productivity and efficiency. These are the two factors that you are really dealing with in making decisions about the staff in your kitchen. Good productivity occurs when you assemble, train and maintain a group of people who are ready, willing and able to do what needs to be done. Good efficiency occurs when you make sure that they are doing it with as little wasted time and effort as possible. Let’s look at ways that you can build a productive and efficient kitchen crew that will be an asset to your whole organization, and not just a drain on your restaurant’s finances, morale and quality.

First, it’s of the utmost importance to have someone with sufficient kitchen experience involved who understands the menu, the volume of business, and just what the intersection of those two things will look like in real life. Before decisions can be made about who to hire, in terms of how many or how experienced, we need to understand just what we’re going to need them to do. If the utensil that gets the most use in the kitchen during prep time is the can opener, and the bulk of the cooking consists of taking pre-breaded items out of a fryer when they’re golden brown, it’s one thing. If all the fish comes in whole, every sauce is made from scratch from stocks made in-house, and sautéing, roasting and poaching are only some examples of the application of heat that take place, it’s another. I might have picked two extremes here to make a point, but the fact is there is a very wide range of what goes on from one kitchen to another. The person making the decisions about the staff in your kitchen should have seen something very similar to your situation all go by before.

The first part of every kitchen’s day is made up of prep. When prep is well organized, with a sufficient amount of the right product being produced to high standards, the chances of service going smoothly are greatly increased. The keys to insure that the day’s prep meet these criteria are planning and direction. They are also the keys for successfully staffing this part of the workday. The chef or kitchen manager must order the correct food in the right quantities, and have it in the kitchen in time to use it. The same thought process that goes into ordering the food must be applied to the prep staff. In the same way that he wouldn’t order too much or too little snapper, he needs to really think about the number of hands he will need to have on deck to get the prep done. As expensive as snapper is, extra hours on the payroll are even more costly – and a dollar is a dollar, whether it’s in food costs or labor costs. He also wouldn’t order snapper for a dish that would be just as good with tilapia. Similarly, it’s worth thinking about if a pot washer might be a better choice to peel a case of carrots than one of your cooks would be, and to use the cook’s hours somewhere where they would be more worthwhile. It would also probably help the cook’s attitude to give him or her something more interesting to do with their time, while being a good first step in getting the pot washer gradually moved into a cook’s position.

Direction is the other half of the equation. Your kitchen crew will be happiest and most productive when they know exactly what is expected of them in terms of quality and quantity. Don’t ever stint on training and reinforcement. Show them exactly what you want them to do, how you want them to do it, and what an acceptable pace is. Don’t expect them to get it right the first time, and don’t think that just because they did it yesterday, they’ll do it again today. Managers should spend a large percentage of their time observing, and then complimenting or correcting. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: be nice! One of the main things you are trying to accomplish in staffing your kitchen is to keep turnover as low as possible. Few things take as much time, energy and money as having to hire a new person and train them to the point where they are really a valued member of the team. The more successful you are at retaining the good people you have, the better off you’ll be, by far. Humane, considerate scheduling will also help a lot in this regard. Another main benefit of having a manager be in, or at least very near, the trenches, is that they will have a visceral feel for whether or not prep time is under- or over-staffed. Even a perfectly staffed kitchen will have times when not everybody in it will look busy. Prep time, by and large, shouldn’t be one of them. While you don’t want your crew to be frantic at prep – no good comes of it – they should have a pretty determined, nose-to-the-cutting-board demeanor about them during this portion of their day. If they don’t, either because they’re too busy or too unchallenged, adjustments should be made.

The next segment of the day is service. The same sort of thought that went into staffing prep time should go into staffing service. You will need to decide what, exactly, needs to be done, who is best able to do it, and how many people it will take to get it done without expecting too much or too little from them. The big difference here as compared to prep is that for prep, YOU decide just what will take place (and hope that what you’ve decided turns out to be appropriate.) During service in an à la carte restaurant, “just what will take place” is largely out of your hands. Still, it’s an even playing field from one restaurant to the next and the same concepts apply as with prep. Think through what you expect the meal period to look like in terms of food going out of the kitchen, with an emphasis on the busiest times. The same concepts of making sure the staff knows exactly what’s expected of them in terms of quality and pace of work still apply, as does the need for very frequent assessment and respectful critique of their performance. It’s also just as useful for management to be able to experience, first hand, whether or not this part of the day is sufficiently staffed, and to make appropriate adjustments.

It’s important to realize that, unlike during prep, some down time is to be expected at service. If you have enough people to handle the rushes, then that same staff will not be busy during the lulls. It’s OK to consider this a well-deserved break. A productive and efficient kitchen staff will not ALWAYS be busy. Usually busy, yes. Always busy, no. Having said that, if you notice lots of fairly dead time on the line on a regular basis, you can probably use that time to get some of the next days prep work done, or begin to do some of the end-of-day cleaning.

Speaking of the end of the day, from my experience, the problem here is not people moving too slowly, but rather people moving too quickly in an effort to get out the door. Supervision during the last half hour of the day is just as important as it is during the first. Make sure prep is properly stored, seafood is iced, trash is taken out, floors and surfaces cleaned….The list is finite, but it must be completed. Doing a good job of putting the kitchen away for the day is best way to insure that prep starts out on the right foot the next.

Joe Abuso is the chef/owner of Recipes & Rotations – Real Food for Mom and Dad, menus, recipes and associated tools to senior-living communities. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and has cooked at some of the country’s best restaurants.