The 4 Most Common Human Errors In Commercial Kitchens (+ Easy Fixes)
February 2, 2023
The most complex and hardest to manage part of the foodservice business is the commercial kitchen. You can master your costing spreadsheets, strategize the perfect purchasing workflow, and create automated systems that sell food in your sleep—but the kitchen will always be a wild west of sorts.
People make the magic happen in commercial kitchens, but people are also prone to make mistakes. We are not software drones that can execute tasks perfectly a thousand times in a row. Human errors are natural, and everywhere.
Let’s look at the most common human errors in commercial kitchens, then explore ways you can optimize your operation to minimize their frequency and impact.
(This is no sleight on kitchen teams. Not one of us is immune to this. In a hot, tiring, and often monotonous environment, human errors are inevitable, even for star employees and super geniuses. The trick is to acknowledge errors, then create systems that circumvent them.)
Math is Hard: Unit Conversions and Recipe Scaling
Someone calls in a big order. You’re going to have to scale-up a handful of recipes and batch-produce if you’re going to make the deadline. The problem? Converting and scaling units on the fly is a recipe (ahem) for disaster.
Even the most math-savvy culinary managers make mistakes simply because there are so many points of failure when trying to do this by hand (or even by calculator). Here are just a few:
Units are counted differently by recipe. Potatoes seem like a simple enough ingredient to manage, but when you take inventory in cases, measure diced potatoes by the cup, portion mashed potatoes by the ounce, and serve potato cakes by cake, getting units all mixed up happens easily.
Manual calculations are ripe for error. Napkin math should be against the law of your kitchen, but even calculators are not fool-proof. Especially when you’re calculating across metrics (mass vs volume), converting and scaling units is likely to produce errors due to simple mistakes.
Don’t forget about trim yield. Converting a case of potatoes to a baked potato recipe generates virtually no trim. Skinned and chopped potatoes, on the other hand, produce a meaningful amount of trim. Forgetting to take preparation method into account when scaling recipes can mean you’re out of potatoes at crunch time because you didn’t account for that 5% loss of the potato skin for a mashed potatoes recipe.
The fix:convert once, then automate. Measure a case of potatoes in diced ounces, mashed cups, or whatever units you work with once. Input the results into your culinary operating system, and let the software automatically convert and scale future units in seconds, across all your ingredients, to any unit of measure. From here, scaling recipes can be as simple as telling the computer “we need to make 5x more mashed potatoes, 3x more baked potatoes, and 7x as many potato cakes”, and the system does all the hard work for you.
Confusing the Recipes (And Not Knowing Where to Go for Clarity)
Nobody ever orders the lobster ragu. Today, someone did—and you have no idea how to make it. Do you sear the lobster meat with the vegetables before deglazing and adding stock, or do you add stock first and boil the lobster meat?
In both fast-paced environments like restaurant kitchens and the more systematic kitchens of food prep companies, not knowing how to answer questions quickly, clearly, and independently is a ticking time bomb. People tend to respond to confusion a few ways:
Some don’t ask for help, embarrassed that they’ve forgotten how to make something
Some believe it’s worse to fall behind than to get the recipe perfect, and wing it
Some stop everything so they can find someone who knows the answer
None of these are good solutions.
The fix: put all your recipe and technique processes in one place. Physical binders in a back office and spreadsheets are not accessible enough to kitchen workers. They need to be able to get information fast, from one place. A centralized recipe and production platform gives everyone on your team (both in the kitchen and out) a single, predictable place to go for answers.
Taking inventory is one of those tasks that’s so monotonous, it’s easy for the eyes to glaze over and then pencil to start jotting down numbers on autopilot. That’s why many enterprise food businesses plan for an Inventory Variance Percentage of around 5%—they fully expect for their inventory counts to only be 95% accurate at any given point.
Five percent may not sound like a lot, but when you think about effectively losing 5% of your inventory across multiple locations and years, it adds up quickly. That’s a lot of food that you paid for, but aren’t sure where it went. But pure counting mistakes aren’t the only inventory-related human error.
Inventory counts are helpful because they inform what you need to buy to keep preparing and serving food. But you don’t just need to serve food today, but tomorrow, and the next day. So today’s inventory isn’t the complete picture. You need to use today’s count to plan for multiple days ahead—and to do that, you’ll need to anticipate loss (spoilage, waste, etc). Today’s inventory count is not helpful for planning and purchasing if half of your tomatoes spoil tomorrow.
The fix: model inventory over time, not just count for today. Good inventory systems don’t just look at what’s in the pantry now, but they look at variance percentage trends over time to give purchasers a more accurate sense of what they need to procure to meet demand.
Producing More Food Than You Need (Hello, Food Waste)
Research suggests that upwards of 10% of food that enters commercial kitchens ends up becoming food waste. Food waste is a multifaceted issue with many, many contributors—far more than we can talk about here.
But let’s dig into one of the biggest contributors: overproduction.
In restaurant settings, some production choices are made by assumptions. For example, Thursdays are usually very busy, so prepare 130 pizza crusts for dinner instead of 80. Assumption choices are usually handed down from someone in a managerial or planning role who looks at overall trends and creates a baseline prep schedule. The potential for human error here is largely based on that planner’s ability to predict demand and create a schedule to meet it (but hopefully not exceed it).
Many choices, however, are made at a moment’s notice by the kitchen team, like when there’s an unusual lunch rush, and it seems like a good idea to make a 3x size batch of tomato sauce, because you’ll probably need it. These on-the-fly choices are made quickly in an effort to “get ahead” of the incoming rush, and since kitchen teams can’t predict when a rush will stop, overshooting the rush and producing more food than is needed happens regularly.
In less time-sensitive commercial kitchens, where production planning happens well in advance, overproduction is most often a result of either poor demand planning (expecting to sell 100 units, but only selling 90) or inaccurate recipe scaling and unit conversions (which we talked about toward the top of this article).
In all of these cases, overproducing food leads to food waste, labor waste, and lost margin.
The fix: give planners and kitchen teams the power to plan and scale recipes using real-time data, not gut feeling and guesses. Weaving together your inventory, purchasing, demand planning, and recipe scaling systems in one central hub gives every team the information they need to plan more accurately and accurately scale production to meet demand at a moment’s notice.
Galley Solutions is a modern culinary operating system for food brands that want to outsmart the human errors around planning and producing food.
Inventory, purchasing, menu planning, recipe costing, production plans, instant recipe scaling—with all of your food data in one centralized place, it’s easy for kitchen teams to instantly scale recipes and batch cook accurately, with less waste.
Not to mention the back-office efficiency gains from having all that data connected and being able to spot and plug leaky buckets at the costing and planning stages.
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