People who imagine one day running a small food business – maybe a country cafe or a gastropub – tend to think of the ambiance they could create, the interesting menu items to offer or the hospitality they could provide to their guests. Many, however, might not consider the other crucial aspects of running a food business, like cost control, menu pricing, allergen labelling, or HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control point - AKA safe food handling procedures).
I could be wrong, of course. Maybe someone out there is dying to open a restaurant to show the world just how good they are at HACCP! But it’s safe to say that we could probably also label these jobs as the “boring bits” of food and hospitality management.
Make or break
However, these “boring bits” are the things which can make or break your small business.
Dermot Gannon is a chef who spent years also working in restaurant consultancy. He owns and operates The Old Convent restaurant with his wife, Christine, in Clogheen, Co Tipperary. He has worked with rural restaurants to organise their kitchen management and tells Irish Country Living that availability of chefs is a real issue – as is keeping these chefs, once they are hired.
“I see job ads for chefs where they list everything they want [from a chef],” he says. “And these lists are very comprehensive – they expect a lot. But then they are only offering €35,000 per year in salary. They want a lot out of them [in terms of creativity] but they don’t value them the same way as they might value someone working in IT, for example.”
Dermot also sees a general lack of understanding of those “boring bits” of kitchen management mentioned earlier. Restaurant owners might only have a very rudimentary understanding of cost control and recipe costing, while chefs can, sometimes, be even worse.
“[Cost control] is either everything to a chef or nothing at all,” he says. “They might say, ‘I’m here to create great food so let the accountant worry about the costs.’”
He says it’s crucial for restaurants to have a healthy understanding of how much menu items are costing, and to also create good working environments and fair pay to attract and retain talented staff.
If you aren’t naturally talented in the realm of kitchen management, menu costing and cost control, there are apps and programme out there which can help. An Irish-made programme, PrepSheets, was launched in 2022 by husband and wife team Tara and Brian Beattie. Brian has worked in hospitality, as a chef, for decades and Tara’s background is in tech (she worked in the areas of quality management systems ERP – enterprise resource planning – before marrying Brian). Working together, they developed a practical programme to help keep track of ingredients costs, suppliers, nutritional information and recipes which could be used across multiple locations.
In February of 2020, the Beatties were operating six cafes in the Kildare/Dublin regions alongside their catering business The Caterers (they also operated several catering venues). They had 70 members of staff, nine separate locations and a plethora of menus to organise each week. This is what led Tara to develop the original Prepsheets – to help manage the business and provide Brian with more clarity on his recipes.
The programme enables chefs and restaurant owners to upload recipes where it then provides crucial information, like prices per unit, profit margin percentages, VAT and wastage. It shows the recipe of a menu item (through an approved purchasing list and by syncing with suppliers like LaRousse Foods and Sysco) and calculates the prices per ingredient, nutritional values and allergens.
Prices start at €29.95 (for managing up to 100 recipes) per month, with paid upgrade options for extras, like nutritional labelling.
Years in the making
Tara explains that the programme has been years in the making and took plenty of trial and error to get it “just right”.
“As we were growing, we were struggling with managing our costs and getting clarity on actual portions and waste,” she explains. “Especially with wedding catering, because when you’re doing the amount of weddings [we were doing], you really need to control what you’re cooking. The least amount of wasted time and food, the better. So, with Brian’s help, I started Prepsheets as an internal tool.
“Then, in 2016, when the legislation changed regarding allergen labelling, I knew a rewrite of the programme would be necessary,” she continues.
“This time, I included the caloric information because I figured, ‘I might as well do it now while I’m doing everything else.’ The only problem with my rewrite was, at that stage, I was the only person who could use Prepsheets! It was working, but it was working with difficulty.”
During COVID-19, Tara and Brian saw their business basically shut down overnight. Their son, Richard, had always had a talent for coding and, as the pandemic had changed so many plans, he decided to take a year out of college to help develop Prepsheets into a more user-friendly programme. He was the missing link to Tara’s usability problem. When lockdown was over and the business reopened, Tara says the response from her once-reluctant team was incredible.
“We reintroduced the new digitised Prepsheets and cut our food costs back from 24% to 20%,” she says. “It keeps things simple and means chefs have the freedom to write their menus without worrying about allergens, costing or nutritional information. Chefs are creative people and those kinds of things don’t always come naturally to them.”
Going for growth
Tara and Brian brought their new-and-improved version of Prepsheets to Enterprise Ireland, who invested €50,000 in the programme.
While new, technology like this has the potential to change the working lives of many small food entrepreneurs. Through automation, you can control things which, historically, were much more difficult to control (like wastage).
This year is set to be a big year for Tara and Brian. They will be participating in CATEX (Ireland’s largest food service and hospitality exhibition) from 21-23 February and are also shortlisted for one of the exhibition’s awards: best food service technology product – back of house.
1 Non-chef restaurant owners should have as much knowledge about the kitchen as the chef. Understand how things should look and taste, how much an item costs to make and what supports a chef needs to get it out to the dining room.
2 Have all recipes costed and available to all cooks. Keep them in a centralised location. Use an app (like Prepsheets) if you can, but make sure the app is easy to use and doesn’t require much searching, scrolling or scanning.
3 Include visuals for recipes whenever possible. Chefs are usually visual people; they can recreate a dish if they can see exactly how you would like it done. Make their job easier wherever possible.
For our final installment of Thriving Rural Hospitality, we meet two best friends who have come together to build a food community in their Co Wicklow locality. How did they do it and is this a model which can be replicated?