Whats on the menu

Whats on the menu

Countering rising food costs through management of food offerings

How catering teams demonstrated agility and creativity when it came to food service delivery during the pandemic was truly commendable. However, catering operations continue to face a staffing crisis leaving many teams struggling to find enough chefs and expertise to make low-cost, flexible menus. This is in addition to the food inflation crisis with the cost of food undeniably increasing and likely to continue.  As foodservice operators look for solutions to handle these issues, Katrina Lane, Senior Relationship Manager at allmanhall offers advice through the management of food offerings.

A starting point is an accurate costing model that provides a comprehensive understanding of all the contributing costs across the catering operation. Full visibility of the fixed and especially variable (controllable) costs is essential. The commercial, profit driven catering model focusing on ‘percentage margins’ is a mindset that an increasing number of consumption based, in-house institutional caterers are turning to. Keeping track of this data, and nimbly controlling variable costs whilst also battling increasing food prices can protect the foodservice operation from excessive spending on ingredients, labour, and energy costs.

Costing menus

Having the flexibility to review and adapt menus quickly, utilising a range of alternative ingredients will help alleviate the rising prices and ensure the production of cost viable dishes whilst still producing high quality and nutritional menus. A review of every ingredient in a recipe, to establish the total cost and yield of each dish, will allow strategic purchasing with the resulting financial benefits. As an example, will the yield of a fish pie be affected if the salmon content is reduced for more haddock or swapped to frozen fish, or less cream is used and more milk?

It is evident that price surges have caused even staple meat products such as minced beef to rise in price significantly, causing some caterers to completely remove beef from their menus, substituting with less expensive cuts of meat such as lamb neck and chicken thighs. But even these are being served less often. Switches are being made to plant-based recipes, with the benefits being lower cost, health, and environmental. With a longer shelf life this shift also helps with food waste reduction, vital to ensure food spend is efficient.

Caterers need information about which products are stable and which are volatile when it comes to price movement. Using a greater proportion of stable products in menus will make it easier to manage and predict the impact of rising prices. Typically, stable products are negotiated annually (e.g. solid pack apples). Whereas volatile products fluctuate more frequently (e.g. butter, bacon etc). With so much uncertainty regarding food prices, now may be the time to ensure a good stock of stable products to offset any further price rises or product shortages

Increase in-house production

Purchasing ready prepared chopped fruit and vegetables, stocks and readymade sauces clearly costs more. Savings will be made by increasing the level of in-house preparation. However, a cost benefit analysis is still recommended, as it is important to factor in additional costs of doing this, such as energy, labour, and equipment depreciation. Batch cooking is a good way of saving time and increasing production output for the same labour input.

Follow the seasons

The globalisation of food production has increased food availability all year round, however seasonal foods are best eaten when they are naturally in harvest or ripening, such as UK butternut squash and blackberries in October. Seasonal ingredients taste better and can be more sustainable and less expensive.

Brand versus own label

The higher cost of branded label products is often influenced by the manufacturers’ marketing costs, not necessarily the quality, flavour, or yield. It is worth sampling own label products, especially if they are only being used back of house, decanted or as secondary ingredient to other dishes. One significant example is rice, around 50% saving can be made by changing to own brand.

Drained weight of tinned goods

Tinned goods often state the net weight, which is the combined weight of the solid and the liquid contents. Measuring the drained weight of tinned items such as fruits, corn, chickpeas, and tuna will help establish their true cost and yield. 

If consuming both the food and the liquid, such as tinned tomatoes, then this won’t likely be an issue, but tinned tuna that is packed in brine or water results in the liquid being drained and discarded. For example, a 1880g tin of tuna when drained might hold 1320g of useable tuna, compared to a 1.7kg can (distributed by other wholesalers) having a drained useable weight of 1260g.

Tinned fruits can often be a convenient and sustainable option as they last much longer, there is less waste and by removing the need to wash and prepare the fruit, savings can be made on labour costs.


Utilising a catering control platform to store recipes and calculate ingredient data to track and manage every penny of spend will enable caterers to forecast accurately and have tighter control over profit margins. This technology supports nimble and flexible menu changes as pricing is uploaded live from suppliers. Also, ingredients can be substituted across all dishes very simply.

Software that can build and cost recipes quickly, whilst simultaneously analysing nutritional and allergen data, streamlining stock control and reducing administration, can save catering operations valuable time and resources.

Whilst caterers continue to face cascading challenges, expert support has never been so important. There is a harsh spotlight on caterers who don’t have good procurement practices in place. Without these practices, the impact of chefs working tirelessly to cost recipes, source the most cost-effective ingredients, manage portion and waste control, is diluted.

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