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Eating Out: Advice From An Expert

How often can you get dining-out advice, straight from the horse’s (or restauranteur’s) mouth?

It’s getting easier, thanks to popular shows like Restaurant Impossible and Chopped, the chefs’ cookoff now in its fourth season. Those same people are now producing cookbooks and memoirs — and occasionally revealing more than they realize.

Enter Restaurant Man, a recent tell-all by restaurant owner Joe Bastianich. Joe comes from good stock; both his father and mother ran successful eateries, and young Joe grew up working for them both. His first restaurant, Becco, was opened with his mother in 1993. Since then, he and his partner Mario Batali have started several successful restaurants in New York City, including Babbo, Des Posto, Lupa, Esca and Otto Enoteca Pizzeria. The duo also have restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

     In his spare time (!!!), Joe is a judge on FoxTV’s competition, MasterChef.

Restaurant Man - Joe Bastianich

    Joe began his career by living in Italy, and working in a variety of eating places there. He took that experience to heart (plus bragging about shagging Dutch and Swedish girl campers), along with knowledge from his father, the ultra-frugal “restaurant man,” when he opened his first place. It must have worked, because his restaurants have been very successful.

    One of the most important points for an eatery, according to Joe, is profit: “…you make dollars by accumulating nickels. If you try to make dollars by grabbing dollars, you’ll never survive. It all comes down to a very simple concept:…we buy things, we fix them up and we sell them for a profit. That’s been our mantra since we started. We’re not full of ourselves. We can’t afford to be.”

eating out

     In his zeal to explain his theory, Joe gives away some telling secrets:

*Use only the best — and freshest ingredients. Which meant that many days, especially when he was starting out, he would hand-pick vegetables, fruit and fish from the early morning market sellers. (And if they substituted something different when delivering, they weren’t his vendors anymore.) Even small things, like olive oil, make a large difference in quality and taste.

*Margin is at least three times the cost of product. If stew ingredients cost $1 a plate, he’s going to charge his customers at least $3…for starters.

*There are exceptions to the above ‘rule’ — because customers won’t pay. “Loss leaders,” Joe calls them, and specifically mentions veal chops and steak. (Only 50 percent markup from original ingredients. That may also explain why, in spite of recent skyrocketing prices for supermarket beef, restaurants haven’t doubled and tripled their steak and burger prices to compensate.)

*Other dishes are marked WAY up. Thinking about ordering a pasta dish or a salad? In any of Joe’s restaurants, you’ll be paying a staggering 15 times markup on whatever the ingredients cost. Lest you think this doesn’t happen much, many of Joe’s restaurants have an Italian emphasis. Delicious — and greater potential for profit.

*Linen and napkins are evil: “it is expensive and no one pays for it.” No wonder some restaurants compensate by layering plastic over the tablecloths. Looks good — and wipes off easily.

*”Anything you give away for free is bad.” Bread and butter are the poster children on Joe’s list, but so is the “f” word: friends. (They expect a lot of goodies, and don’t come back if they have to pay.)

*Want wine? At the very least, you’ll be paying double or triple. Probably, though, you’ll be shelling out four times its cost.

*Extras like appetizers and desserts add value — for the owner. “Desserts are almost pure profit,”  says Joe.

*Pay close attention to the little things. A spoon lost in the garbage, a pot of coffee or unused food thrown away, even a chef who trims the meat not close enough to the bone — these all add up to money wasted needlessly.

The bottom line:  30% food and wine, 30% labor and 20% misc. (including rent) add up to 20% profit for the restauranteur. “Your rent per month should be your gross take on the slowest day,” he cautions, and adds, “And that’s it. Restaurant math is easy.”

eating out

     The lessons in this book are clear… other than debating whether European girl campers are loose, that is. Want the best bargains while eating out?  Avoid the appetizers, and ask for more bread. (Take the extra home for a morning casserole — these are especially good — or French toast.) Stick to a good-sized chunk of protein — steak is one of the best. (Make your salad or pasta at home, and give yourself that profit, instead of the restaurant.) If you must order wine or beer, get a carafe or pitcher. (Joe says that margin is only triple the cost, versus four times for a glass.)

     Don’t waste a crumb of the food you pay for. Potatoes and meat, chopped and sauteed in a few tablespoons of olive oil, become a delicious hash for breakfast or dinner the next day. (Even a few leftover spoonfuls give a tasty filling to a salad, sandwich or omelet.) Drizzle a few spoonfuls of butter or cream sauce to veggies, or add them to soup or a casserole.

     Take your garnishes home, too — they can add flavor and color to food. This home version of Olive Garden’s Zuppa Toscanamakes a delicacy out of leftover kale, when chopped fine and combined with sausage, potatoes and chicken broth.

eating out

But don’t even think about dessert.

Thanks for sharing, Joe. 

eating out

 

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