Tips to Trim Food Costs Insights from Museums, Zoos and Aquariums

February 13, 2017 No Comments

By Karen Appold

Improving the bottom line is a common goal among businesses. When looking at how to save money on food costs, individuals who manage zoos, aquariums and museums had lots of advice to offer.

For instance, Jodi Young, food and beverage manager, John Ball Zoo, Grand Rapids, Mich., suggested using an inventory system. “Technology has come a long way; what used to be done by hand and take hours can be done quickly and more accurately by using an inventory system,” she said. “Inventory systems can also highlight areas of concern, whether it’s waste, theft or cost increases. Many systems automatically update recipe costs as increases occur and can notify you about them.”

A worker at  the Lake Superior Railroad Museum & North Shore Scenic Railroad setting up plates. The location sometimes buys special items such as food trays from caterers.

A worker at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum & North Shore Scenic Railroad setting up plates. The location sometimes buys special items such as food trays from caterers.

Another way that Young keeps food prices down is to develop relationships with distributors and vendors. “Never automatically agree to pay list price,” she said. “Many vendors are willing to work on pricing or offer rebates. Comparison shop for ingredients, too. Sales representatives can often provide insight into comparable products.”

With all of that being said, focus on the items you move the most cases of, Young continues. “It will give you better leverage with a vendor and the few dollars a case you save will have a larger impact if you are moving 500 cases rather than 20 cases,” she said.

Josh Miller, station master, Lake Superior Railroad Museum & North Shore Scenic Railroad, Duluth, Minn. The attraction purchases most items for its concession areas through suppliers who deal in wholesale rates designed for resale.

Josh Miller, station master, Lake Superior Railroad Museum & North Shore Scenic Railroad, Duluth, Minn. The attraction purchases most items for its concession areas through suppliers who deal in wholesale rates designed for resale.

Daniel Lanieri, food and beverage director, Long Island Aquarium, Riverhead, N.Y., has also found that buying in bulk, especially non-perishable items, results in savings. Further, he negotiates sponsorships and pricing considerations for product placement and exclusivity. “There is tremendous value for manufacturers to have exclusive rights to sell their products at our location,” he said. In sponsorship and exclusivity situations, other manufacturers aren’t competing to get into the end user’s hands. In addition, marketing value increases when there’s signage and branding within our facility. This gives us pricing power and the ability to negotiate better prices directly from the manufacturer.”

Saint Louis Zoo employees, from left: D’Juan Wiley, foodservice supervisor; Tanisha Jones, food production manager; Scott Trapasso, foodservice supervisor; Rachel Samsoucie, foodservice supervisor; and Sharon Woolford, prep cook. Fountain beverages and house-made snacks are the most profitable sellers for the attraction.

Saint Louis Zoo employees, from left: D’Juan Wiley, foodservice supervisor; Tanisha Jones, food production manager; Scott Trapasso, foodservice supervisor; Rachel Samsoucie, foodservice supervisor; and Sharon Woolford, prep cook. Fountain beverages and house-made snacks are the most profitable sellers for the attraction.

Young also recommended cross utilizing ingredients when possible. “When we purchase new ingredients for a new menu item which ends up not selling well, we try and figure out how to use the remaining ingredients for another recipe,” she said. For example, the zoo sells chips and cheese as well as barbecue pulled pork sandwiches. Without bringing in any new ingredients, staff created the pulled pork nacho. In the first year, that recipe was among the top 10 food items sold. “It was a great upsell to standard chips and cheese and also provided a gluten-free entrée-sized item.”

Quality of product plays a big role in managing costs too, Lanieri added. “If you serve sub-par quality products customers will notice, sales will suffer and you will lose the ability to charge full retail prices,” he said. “Your margin on some high-cost staple items will start to shrink to the point that they are no longer profitable. You’ll start buying inferior ingredients and the cycle will continue … it’s the death spiral for a food service establishment. Quality must be a top priority.”

A grill setup at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum & North Shore Scenic Railroad. Experience foods, such as shaped candy, sells well at the attraction.

A grill setup at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum & North Shore Scenic Railroad. Experience foods, such as shaped candy, sells well at the attraction.

For Josh Miller, station master, Lake Superior Railroad Museum & North Shore Scenic Railroad, Duluth, Minn., distributors aren’t always the best option. “We purchase most items for our candy shops, ice cream shops, gift shops and other concession areas through suppliers who deal in wholesale rates designed for resale,” he said. “However, sometimes it’s best to purchase specialty items such as food trays for a special event or meeting locally through caterers you have a good relationship with.”

Miller has also found that using food trucks for large events works well. “Many local vendors are accustomed to profit sharing if you’re interested; a percentage of their profits go to you,” he said. “But sometimes not choosing a profit share and receiving a few coupons for the food trucks for your hard-working employees (who may be tired of the food you sell at your establishment) can make a world of difference in staff happiness.”

Concessions at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum & North Shore Scenic Railroad. The location sometimes uses food trucks for large events.

Concessions at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum & North Shore Scenic Railroad. The location sometimes uses food trucks for large events.

At Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I., Aaron Crossett, general manager, says managing food waste is necessary. “Our onsite team uses multiple weather forecasting trackers, coupled with historical attendance and sales figures, in order to best gauge our product needs,” he said. Another strategy is to implement strategic portion controls.

Tracking selling trends and preparing more of those items is a good strategy to keep food costs down, said Cheryl Barry, owner, WT Café at South Florida Science Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. This ensures higher production of those items and less work.

Most Profitable Picks 

At John Ball Zoo, Young says snack foods—particularly popcorn, cotton candy and soft pretzels—typically have high profit margins. “I think that’s because they require few ingredients and typically waste is minimal,” she said. “You will also catch a larger segment of the market, as guests may not splurge for a meal for their entire family but they will opt for a snack to tide everyone over during their visit.”

Ice cream is another area with high-profit potential. “Guests typically don’t have the same price sensitivity to desserts as they do with lunch or dinner items,” Young said. Again, few ingredients are used so there is less of a chance of waste. Patrons also view getting ice cream as part of the experience.

Tanisha Jones, food production manager, St. Louis Zoo in Missouri. Snacks and drinks are sure-sellers for the attraction.

Tanisha Jones, food production manager, St. Louis Zoo in Missouri. Snacks and drinks are sure-sellers for the attraction.

For Miller, the most profitable items in terms of markup are “experience foods” such as shaped candy that is memorable for the location. For example, the museum purchases chocolate train spikes wrapped in gold that are a cornerstone of an exhibit about the Transcontinental Railroad which includes a gold spike ceremony.

Lanieri said fountain beverages are by far the most profitable items. “Not only is there a large markup, but they are high volume,” he said.

Barry says snack items and drinks are the most profitable because they have a longer shelf life.

Ken Stover, director of food service, Saint Louis Zoo, St. Louis, Mo., has similar sentiments, noting that fountain beverages and house-made snacks (particularly popcorn and cotton candy) are the most profitable because most visitors want a beverage and some kind of snack during their visit.

Take a good look at your food expenses, and you’ll be amazed at all the strategies that you can employ to reduce them.

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