Controlled Quality: Keeping Food Service Payroll Costs Down

Steve Lopez swears by his spreadsheet. This document, which tracks labor percentage, daily earnings, weather and food service patterns from previous years at the Phoenix Zoo, is indispensible to Lopez, who is general manager of concessions. The data Lopez has compiled has not come easily– he said it is the culmination of years of observation and trend-spotting.

“We’ve been here for six years now, and it’s taken that long for us to really figure out those trends,” he said.  “We have some good numbers now, but it’s taken a while.”

Observing and anticipating attendance and sales patterns is a crucial aspect of controlling food service payroll costs at zoos and aquariums. Although certain events – such as spring break or a new exhibit – may be “no-brainers” in terms of staffing needs, there are often more variables than constants.

“The weather, for example, completely dictates our business,” Lopez said. “The weather is included in our spreadsheets as well. That information isn’t always accurate, but it’s the only way to make an educated guess.”

The key word, in Lopez’s case, is “educated.” He keeps spreadsheets for each of the 13 food venues at the zoo, and adheres to a general formula of 25 percent labor. This means that on a given day, he aims to utilize a labor force that comprises 25 percent of sales. He analyzes these percentages daily to determine whether he has stayed within that framework.

“We constantly watch our labor versus our daily sales, and we try to stay as close to the 25 percent target as we can,” he said. “There is no book that says, ‘If you have X number of people at the zoo today, you need to have X people working,’ but the 25 percent target has worked well for us.”

Saving money in other areas of food service is another useful approach to maximizing staff and payroll, said Juanita Hernandez, manager of the Safari Shoppe, a gift and concession shop at the Lee Richardson Zoo in Garden City, Kan.

“I’ve done a lot of research on the food, like where I can get the best prices and the best quality food,” Hernandez said. “Getting a good price on the food will save money, and quality food is going to sell well. So that helps to free up money for payroll and other costs.”

For many zoos, particularly those with outdoor eateries, reducing to a skeleton crew in wintertime is another intuitive way of cutting payroll costs.
“People usually don’t like to buy food at a zoo in the winter,” said Kevin Love, culinary director at Zoo Boise in Boise, Idaho. “Especially if it’s a cold winter. We drastically reduce our staff in the winter months; it’s usually just a few managers.”

This seasonal cutback is also very familiar to Hernandez, who generally trims her staff each winter to one manager and one assistant manager. She said she also has reduced the store’s hours of operation. She does, however, keep her seasonal employees on call during the winter months.

“I have them on call just to guarantee they still have their job here, and that they get some hours,” she said. “And when the weather is nice, they do get called in.”

Meeting employee needs while curtailing payroll costs is a difficult balancing act, and managers often need to make special efforts to bolster morale. Love said although his zoo generally loses most of its seasonal employees each winter, he makes efforts to reward those who stick around.

“In the winter, we have friendly competitions, where the employees can win a gift card as a prize,” he said. “We do some of that in the spring and summer, too, but we do a lot more of it in the winter months.”

Keeping the job fun is a good incentive for food service employees all year round, said Bob Danner, operations manager at the Louisville Zoo.
“What’s nice about a zoo is you have a lot of different {food service} locations, and you can move people around,” Danner said. “We have 15 points of sale at our zoo, and each of those locations might need between two and 12 people. I like to switch people around, to keep the job fresh and interesting for them.”

Offering zoo employees the opportunity to work “special events” or parties is also a valuable way to increase morale and retain staff, said Scot Mangold, vice president of Culinary Operations for Team Service USA. Mangold’s company handles concessions for the Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden in Evansville, Ind.

“Team Service USA has other facilities, and we also do a lot of catering,” Mangold said. “Those types of events are completely different, fancier. The employees always seem to enjoy getting those jobs.”

Similarly, Brad Streeter is a private contractor whose company, Vista Drive-In, provides food service for various locations, including the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kan. Streeter said he sometimes utilizes zoo employees at the other restaurants his company owns.

“Most of our employees are students who are just looking for seasonal work, but the really good ones, we might train them to work in our other restaurants,” Streeter said. “We have made some good hires that way.”

Overall, though, Streeter said it is the predominantly part-time nature of zoo concession work that helps keep payroll costs under control.
“The zoo’s hours fit school hours, so that works out very conveniently for students,” he said. “It’s a great option for people who want to have summer employment, or some weekend employment during the school year.” –

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