How to Take Food Inventory

by Felicia Greene; Updated September 26, 2017
Four chefs preparing food at counter in a row

Maintaining an accurate food inventory provides your restaurant with a solid foundation for success. Because food and beverage costs represent a large portion of your restaurant's expenses and are subject to supplier price fluctuations, good inventory tracking minimizes unnecessary orders. With regularly updated food inventory counts, you are better positioned to design and refine your menu, confident that you have the proper food ingredients to satisfy your chefs and your bottom line.

Optimum Organization

Organizing your food items in advance makes your inventory less complicated. Separate your ingredients into groups, such as dairy products, produce, seafood and meat. By grouping similar items together, you avoid criss-crossing the kitchen and storage rooms during the inventory. Save additional inventory time by organizing your stored food items in the order in which you will record them during the inventory.

Counting Conundrum

As the restaurant proprietor, you have considerable latitude in designing your inventory framework. Some restaurant owners count every package of meat, head of lettuce and quart of milk; others track only expensive or easily spoiled products, such as steaks, lobster and Cornish hens. Once you select your inventoried items, don't deviate from that list. If you inventory only high-dollar items one week, for example, refrain from adding every vegetable and fruit in your cold storage room during the next inventory. That inconsistency will skew your inventory and usage results.

Inventory Idiosyncrasies

Though you can still use tried-and-true inventory sheets, many restaurant owners have switched to tailored restaurant inventory software, designed in an application or spreadsheet format. Standalone application software does not require a spreadsheet program and usually features more-sophisticated capabilities. A spreadsheet-based program is useful if you can confidently function within an Excel spreadsheet environment. You can run both types of formatted programs on your restaurant desktop or laptop computer. Other manufacturers offer similar standalone systems in hand-held models.

Calling All Missing Food

Your diligent food inventory efforts can be thwarted by external variables. When kitchen workers do not properly date and rotate food, potentially spoiled older food languishes on the shelf while workers use up recently purchased ingredients. Cooks accidentally burn expensive proteins such as steak and imported fish; and servers slip and fall, causing their plates of food to crash on the floor. As distasteful as it sounds, internal theft also affects your food inventories. Finally, servers and managers often provide customers with complimentary items, such as a dessert on the customer's birthday. Recording each of these incidents in a centrally located log enables you to deduct them from your food inventory.

Consistency Is the Key

Standardizing your inventory procedures will streamline your work and reduce the chance of errors. Perform your inventory before your restaurant opens or after it closes for the day. This ensures your results won't be skewed because a cook grabs food items to make a diner's meal. Also, avoid taking inventory while your food service truck is carting in multiple boxes of food, because that will also muddy your results. Take each inventory at the same time of day, because food usage patterns vary during the restaurant's hours of operation. Keep your food scales well calibrated to reduce inconsistent results.

Food Counting Frequency

Decide how frequently to peform your food inventory work. Though counting food items before every order seems laborious, this method enables you to keep tighter control over your supplies and minimize your order costs. If that isn't feasible, a weekly inventory also provides you with reasonably current information and can help you pinpoint any unusual shortages. A monthly inventory will prove useful when compiling your costs for monthly accounting statements. Regardless of the inventory frequency, you will ideally complete your work in two hours or less.

About the Author

Based in North Carolina, Felicia Greene has written professionally since 1986. Greene edited sailing-related newsletters and designed marketing programs for the New Bern, N.C. "Sun Journal" and New Bern Habitat ReStore. She earned a Bachelor of Science in business administration from the University of Baltimore.

Photo Credits

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