Kitchen Cent$

This time of year is often consumed by projections and deadlines to submit next year’s food budget. Although the numbers may seem enormous, don’t lose sight of the fact that financial success in the kitchen is won or lost by pennies at a time. There are three ways to determine a dining-services budget. The best way is cost-projecting—determining an actual cost per camper and multiplying that figure by the number of expected campers. The next best way is using the previous year’s actual expenses and adjusting for expected changes in the coming year. The least desirable—yet still often-used method—is “winging it,” hoping the money doesn’t run out before the end of summer.

Beginning with the least desirable method, here are the pros and cons of each:

1) The “wing it” method often applies to camps that have a management mentality of “We’ve always done it that way.” For those camps lucky enough to have a fixed camper enrollment, stable expenses, and satisfaction with the previous year’s service, this is a workable model. If, however, enrollment numbers fluctuate and food and labor costs rise, or if last year’s food service was less than noteworthy, then you need to change the approach.

2) Reviewing the previous year’s budget method is viable as long as one can predict the new variables. Before addressing enrollment numbers and changes in food and labor costs, first ask, “Was I happy

The most effective camps evaluate budget costs with a return-on-investment mentality.  Photo courtesy © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Leaf

The most effective camps evaluate budget costs with a return-on-investment mentality.

Photo courtesy © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Leaf

with the food service last year?” The most effective camps evaluate budget costs with a return-on-investment mentality. The business of camping is all about filling beds and changing lives. Every budget category should be reviewed as “Did we get a good return on our investment?” Each category is competing for the same “spendable” dollars.

  • Which expenditures generate the best return (i.e., camper days or filled beds)?
  • Are campers happier with new mattresses or a second lifeguard for waterfront activities?
  • Will enrollment increase by remodeling the dining hall or repaving the entrance drive?

This type of “return-on-investment” thinking keeps a camp healthy and growing. Those staffs that want to use a past income statement as a blueprint for future operations should make sure that what is being done today will take the camp where it’s expected to be down the road.

3)  Cost-projecting is certainly the most time-consuming method of budgeting, but is well worth it. Once the kitchen is properly staffed, determine food expenses by “costing out” each component of the meal. Depending on the expertise of the staff, the numbers can be determined by portion-costs or production-costs. An example of portion-costing is a 4-ounce serving of chicken breast at $4 per pound = $1 portion-cost. An example of production-costing is spending $38 a case on chicken to feed 25 campers; the portion-cost per serving, then, is $1.52 (38/25). One shortcut to figuring indirect food costs (i.e., seasoning, condiments, and self-serve tabletop items) is to find an average cost and apply it to projections. For example, add 20 to 25 cents per meal, or 5 to 10 percent of the total costs to cover the indirect food costs. Most staffs will find that many items have a similar cost per serving, so generalizations can be used to save time (i.e., all sides of vegetables average 40 cents per serving, or all dinner rolls with butter average 17 cents). Once the menu is analyzed to arrive at an average cost per meal, it is easy to figure the projected budget by multiplying the cost per meal by the number of camper meals served per week, month, or season.

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