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Upping your game: the challenges of food and beverage procurement in today’s club market
Effective procurement of your food and beverage ingredients in support of your dining operation can be challenging, but one foodservice sector which is upping its game in this regard is the club market – many clubs have been working hard to evolve their menu offerings to the extent that they are comparable to the better restaurants.
To find out more about the right way to go about procurement, as well as the potential pitfalls to avoid, we spoke to two industry professionals who consult regularly to clubs as well as to the wider foodservice market.
Paul Rifkin is a seasoned foodservice veteran with more than 40 years’ experience in large venue kitchens, 30 of those as an executive chef and mentor. His CV includes 17 years as executive chef at Campbelltown Catholic Club, where he was actively involved in the design, construction and menus of eight new kitchens including a hotel, convention centre, restaurants and event spaces.
Today Paul spends much of his time consulting to foodservice operations, including undertaking three day audits of venues such as clubs. “I go in and uncover stuff that people don’t know about, and from that I’m able to make suggestions for improvements,” Paul explains. He usually comes back on a monthly basis, spending time working with the inhouse management team over a three to four month period – the aim is to “move everything forward, to create a business with greater profitability and better teamwork. During the process I often end up redesigning kitchens or at least making modifications to make them flow a bit better, and work with the executive chef to help the venue improve what they do.”
Evolving to meet contemporary tastes
Paul uses the club market as an example of how the industry is evolving to meet contemporary tastes: “Obviously with COVID a lot of things have changed, but even before that there were a lot of clubs working hard to improve and evolve their food offering. When you go into the majority of clubs in Sydney you can see their food offering is as good if not better than what’s available outside. This is partly because as their membership demographic continues to evolve, they’re finding they have to attract younger people, and that old-world approach of what clubs used to be no longer works.”
For those clubs who are reinventing their food offering and doing it well, catering turnover has in some cases increased threefold – enabling management to invest more money back into the operation and open more food outlets within the venue.
Of course not all operations have been successful in upping their game, and Paul says part of the problem is “old school” procurement and management practices which simply haven’t moved with the times.
“Even some venues whose food operations generate millions are still doing their costings the old-fashioned way, with recipes on bits of paper or in Excel spreadsheets. Often there’s an opposition to having better systems in place such as those which are keyed to invoices. There’s also a resistance in some clubs to making upward pricing adjustments because they’re worried about alienating their customer base.”
Core menus can provide economies of scale across multiple outlets
Steve Sidd is a foodservice and food retail specialist with more than 20 years of hospitality management, project management and consulting experience. His passion is to support and improve the industry and to that end he often works as a consultant to foodservice operations. Steve is also the managing director of Catering HQ, which began operating venues in the Sydney café and restaurant scene, then expanded into cafes and clubs. Today it runs the food offerings in eight clubs throughout Sydney, renting the dining outlets and function spaces from the clubs and running them as independent businesses.
Steve explains the approach he and his team take to procurement and supply chain management: “We’ve set things up so we have the same core menu across all our clubs, but each one is slightly tweaked for the relevant demographic. Having this core menu gives us some economies of scale so we can act as a buying group – we virtually do an informal tender when we go to market for dry goods, meat, poultry etc, and conduct an analysis on the different supply chain options.
“We then generally lock them in for three months, after which we’ll review with every seasonal menu change – we’re always focused on continuous improvement. Thanks to our size we’ve also been able to set up our own central warehousing which again gives us better buying capacity. So rather than going through a distributor, we’re able to purchase meat directly from abattoirs, we’re able to order from manufacturers by the pallet load and store it at our central warehouse.”
This strategy also protects against the common tendency for some distributors to deliver a different brand or product than was ordered. “We won’t accept substitutions,” Steve points out, “we make very clear what we want and we find that by doing it inhouse this way it works better for us.”
Funky pubs have upped the ante on food delivery
Like Paul, Steve says many clubs are hidebound by the “old school” approach. “Your three biggest sellers are still your chicken schnitzel, roast of the day and fish and chips, but the presentation style needs to change with the time. So today we tend to serve beautiful fresh barramundi fillets with zucchini flowers, along with beautifully presented pastas, healthy salads, power bowls and those kinds of contemporary meal choices.”
He says the pub market has led the way in forcing venues to up their game: “I think a lot of the push has come from the pubs – there are lot of funky pubs now which have really upped the ante on their food and beverage offering and at the same time done these modern renovations to create a much more enticing atmosphere. So that has put pressure on other venues to compete, and clubs in particular are now improving their offerings, doing refurbs and so on. The ones that don’t are the ones that will be left behind.”
Paul Rifkin makes the point that predictability is a key component of any foodservice menu and this in theory makes procurement planning easier – but says it can fall down in practice if the right procedures aren’t followed.
“A certain amount of food in any establishment is going to be pretty much the same – this is because people are creatures of habit.”
“Having said that, it’s equally important to have those more innovative, contemporary dishes on the menu because then customers perceive the club as up to date. They may not necessarily order them, but it’s psychological marketing – if a customer sees better-for-you meals on the menu, they may think they’re eating healthier even when they order schnitzel and chips.
Another reason meals sometimes don’t produce enough profit is because the portion sizes are too big. “That’s often the case in clubs, and again it’s because management think it’s what the customers want. When in fact if you monitor what’s left over when they’ve finished their meals, you often find that 50 per cent of the food is ending up in the bin.
Getting away from the “old school” approach
“So there’s definitely room for improvement in those areas. We need to get away from the old school approach, where people will bulk up their orders because the supplier won’t fulfil them unless it’s over a certain amount. That leads to over-purchasing of stock which in turn leads to wastage. A better alternative is to ensure you have at least have two suppliers, and make sure they both know each other exists – that keeps both on their toes and when you run out of a box of one you can just go to the other.
“It’s often also the case when you just use the one supplier that you’ll get ‘price creep’ – you trust them and they’re increasing the price without you realising – and of course you can also run into stock availability issues. Many clubs don’t have strong receipt of goods procedures in place – while there’s a lot doing it, there’s also a lot that’s not. And that’s where you’ll find out you’ve been delivered nine boxes instead of ten. As long as there are humans making the deliveries and humans receiving them, there’s going to be human error, as well as laziness.”
The importance of robust stock control
Paul points out this is why it’s important to have robust stock control procedures – and that extends beyond just about ordering stock, to how you look after it. “There are a lot of issues which result from lack of good procedures and that comes down to training. Any catering establishment can tighten up their system somewhere – you don’t necessarily have to have dedicated people to take receipt, it’s more the fact that the supplier needs to understand they can’t just dump it on the dock or at the kitchen door and run.
“I’ve seen stuff sitting on the floor for three hours and no one’s putting it away, no one’s checked it, no one’s done anything. So you get spoilage – for example if you leave frozen chips out at room temperature, when you cook them they’re not going to perform the way they should. And I know suppliers get frustrated about this, because they get the blame when in fact it’s because the goods haven’t been stored properly upon delivery or they’ve simply been left for too long where they’ve been dropped off, whether it’s the dock or the kitchen.
“Then there’s also all those fridges that aren’t properly maintained, so they’re not running at the right temperature, or coolroom doors that spend most of the day open. The staff might say ‘we’ve got a blind and that keeps the heat out’, but no it doesn’t – it’s no substitute for a metre of foam insulation. All these things count towards how everything works efficiently in the kitchen.
“Having been in kitchens for almost 45 years, 30 of those as an executive chef, you become attuned to what’s happening. So when I go in I spend three days. I always say, the first day they don’t want me there, the second they tolerate me, and the third they start to listen. A lot of auditors will go in and do one day, but all that produces is one report.
“Someone in management may have hired you to do an audit, but the kitchen doesn’t necessarily want you there because you’re a disruption to them. But the person paying you is prepared to put up with the disruption because they want the improvements that can be brought to bear on the operation.”