Opening and closing procedures to save labor costs
As restaurant operators look to tighten labor costs, they are adjusting opening and closing procedures. While pizzeria owners and efficiency experts agree there are no shortcuts for certain tasks related to cleaning and food safety, some items on the To Do list can be checked off during other times of the day, or the next day. The key is to figure out how many people are needed to perform certain functions, and to set goals for using the time efficiently.
Take a close look at the specific tasks the staff perform before service begins and after the last pie goes out. “The most important thing is understanding how much time it really takes to open and close,” says Juan Pablo Lopez, consulting director for Profitality. When the Miami, Florida-based industrial engineering consulting service performs operational studies with its clients, the experts collect data on how many hours and how many crew members it takes to do every activity in the restaurant, from making pizza to cleaning to opening and closing.
The equipment plays a role in the time it takes to perform tasks. The morning crew typically turns on the oven, Lopez says, and some deck ovens can take up to two hours to reach the proper temperature. For safety, at least two people work together, so use that time to do as much prep work as possible. The rest of the work can be done later, after the lunch rush.
One task that can be postponed is ingredient prep. “If you need to slice and pan tomatoes, all those things happen before the guests show up, but it doesn’t have to happen that morning,” Lopez says. “You can do it at two p.m., and the tomatoes could be used the next morning.”
At Mattenga’s Pizza, with six locations in the San Antonio, Texas area, the evening crew had a long list of closing tasks. That changed when workers started calling in sick, and a checklist designed for multiple people had to be completed by one person. So the closing procedures were reduced to five or six important tasks, and everything else scheduled for various times the next day. “I am more pro keeping the team productive the whole shift and not dumping it all on the evening shift,” says co-founder Hengam Stanfield. “We always want to even out the load.”
Otherwise, Stanfield says, workers try to avoid being scheduled for busy night shifts. By limiting the closing tasks to sweeping, restocking the line and other important tasks, workers can be out in an hour. If there are five workers, the manager will release one or two early. “We’ll say, ‘Why don’t you help out the closing team and put two loads of dishes in the dishwasher and then I’m sending you home,’” she says. “Everybody wants to help out.”
Mattenga’s has standards and expectations for each task, and team members are trained on these. Stanfield keeps track of labor costs through the restaurants’ scheduling software, and messages managers if they are running up high labor costs and suggests they send someone home. During Monday meetings, managers review all the clock in/clock out times and discuss what to do when a location takes an hour and half instead of an hour to close.
Technology can help streamline the opening and closing procedures. At Nina + Rafi in Atlanta, workers download an app, Jolt Checklist, onto their phones, and management puts the opening and closing checklist on the app. “Employees will take pictures, check off or give typed responses to checklists that are programmed to only be live during certain times of the day,” says Jeremy Gatto, director of operations at Nina + Rafi. “This not only keeps them on task but allows us to run restaurants remotely as e-mails of completed checklists get sent to my phone.”
Also, Gatto says, the schedule staggers employees’ in and out times, and kitchen employees are cross trained on all tasks so everyone can help when needed.
Some restaurants have shortened their workday, and that helps alleviate the labor shortages. Bird Pizzeria in Charlotte, N.C. is open from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., and stops serving pizza when the kitchen runs out of dough. “We started that way because we didn’t have any employees,” says Nkem Thompson, who opened the eatery with her husband Kerrel in December 2021. “We can’t be here all day. We just sort of did what we could do.”
The short days work well for the five-member crew, which includes the owners. “We are being mindful of what is going to work to create the best work environment for staff,” Thompson says. “We make pizza, but we are in the business of managing people. We can’t do anything if the staff doesn’t feel well or their knees hurt.”
The first thing they do in the morning is make boxes, and only a few of those because the small kitchen has limited space. The last thing they do at closing is mop the floor. Tuesdays and Thursdays are dough making days. “Every week is the same,” Thompson says.
In pizzerias where the owners are not working alongside the crew, management must communicate the opening and closing procedures. Videos and other online tools can help, especially since workers have varying schedules. “People have one or two jobs, they’re going to school, and they’re driving for Uber at the same time,” says William H. Bender, whose W.H. Bender & Associates consultancy is based in San Jose, California. “Have something cloud based or digital based so they can watch at one o’clock in the morning.”
In-person meetings are also helpful. “Have a pre-shift briefing five to 10 minutes before the shift to psyche up the team,” Bender says. “Talk about what’s going on that day, whether you have some big orders, and give one on one time.” The goal is for the whole restaurant to be ready 10 minutes before the place opens.
At the end of the day, do a final walkthrough to verify everything is clean and food is safely stored. “You want to leave a restaurant the way you want to find it when you come in the morning,” Bender says, “not a jumbled mess.”
Nora Caley is a freelance writer who covers small business, finance and lifestyle topics.