With sales expected to remain sluggish and profit margins slim at many full-service restaurants in 2014, restaurateurs should look to maximize efficiencies in their operations to help them get through these lean times.

According to the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Industry Forecast for 2014, 67 percent of casual-dining operators characterized business conditions as being either “fair” or “poor,” while 80 percent of family-dining operators used those terms to describe business. Fifty-eight of fine-dining operators also called business either fair or poor.

While an uncertain economy and unrelenting competitive environment continue to impact sales and traffic, operators blame rising food, labor and utility costs for shrinking already thin margins.

“With cost challenges likely to remain at the forefront, tableservice operators have lower expectations for their profitability in 2014,” the NRA forecast said.

However, although some conditions are beyond restaurateurs' control, industry consultants recommend that they look to their own operations in an effort to maximize efficiencies — notably in the back-of-the-house. Inefficient kitchen operations can slow down service, make a muddle of orders and pinch off profits, they say.

“Try to understand where the pinches are and what's causing them,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president-foodservice strategies for WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio. “Find out what's preventing the kitchen from getting an order out correctly and smoothly without overtaxing the crew.”

Fred LeFranc, chief executive, president and managing partner of Results Thru Strategy in Charlotte, N.C., says restaurateurs should assess the efficiency of their cook stations. Individuals working those stations should have to take no more than “two steps back, left or right, and that's the maximum,” LeFranc says. “You don't want a cook taking more steps than that.”

He also recommends evaluating product storage above and beneath the station. “You want ease of access — the least amount of action,” he says. “If you're making hamburgers, where are your buns kept? You don't want the cook having to take six steps to get a bun and then four steps to get the cheese.”

Lombardi agrees, saying workstations must be designed to minimize motion and fatigue. Citing as an example one job he consulted on, he found that crew members had to walk a mile each just to fill 80 orders.

Also, he says, if you have to restock a station during a meal period, the station has not been set up correctly. “All materials and inventory needed to run the station should be readily available at service,” he notes.

LeFranc also says each station must be equipped with the right tools required to do the job. “For portion control, you need the correct-sized serving utensils as well as easy access to the necessary china or packaging,” he explains.  

Foster Frable, president of Clevenger Frable LaVallee Inc. in White Plains, N.Y., advises making use of wall space with multi-layer shelving that is as tall as possible. “Most kitchens waste 50 percent of their potential storage space with empty walls or walls with one shelf,” Frable says.

He also recommends reducing aisle spaces to a minimum and using the additional area for storage and work surfaces, which, he says, are more important than having oversized aisles.

Meanwhile, operators with walk-in coolers and freezers should install shelving that is either cantilevered off the walls or mobile to allow for easy cleaning of the entire box, he says.

Frable suggests creating multi-use flat tops in service and prep elements. For example, he says, if cold and hot wells are recessed flush into a counter, “you can put a cover over the top and place sheet pans or cutting boards on top between meal periods to create additional work tables.”

In addition, he advises purchasing covers for prep and pot sinks that allow them to double as work surfaces when not needed for their primary task as a sink.

Lombardi also tells operators to evaluate kitchen staff productivity regularly. “If you have people doing prep work that isn't time critical instead of taking care of orders during peak meal periods, something isn't right,” he says. “Either you have too many people or you're not deploying them properly.”

Kitchen management software and hardware can aid operators running high-volume locations, Frable says. “The systems really work and can make a big difference in productivity.”

Consultants also recommend purchasing certain items in larger quantities when it makes sense, noting that bigger containers often can save an operator money and help to better organize storage and retrieval of goods. Many restaurateurs, in fact, work together successfully with manufacturers to identify packaged products that enable their back-of-the-house operations to run more efficiently.

However, consultants also caution operators to not buy more of any given product than they need. “Stocking up on something is only a bargain if you can use all of it and it doesn't end up going bad,” Lombardi says. “Operators need to know how long a case of something will last. Keep in mind what the package sizes are and how easy or difficult it will be to sell.”

In the meantime, Lombardi advises that it is important for a kitchen to keep up with menu changes. “In smaller chains or independent restaurants, the menu tends to evolve over time, but the kitchen might not,” he says. “Often you find that the kitchen is no longer able to handle the new menu efficiently. That can often require an extra effort on the part of the line crew to compensate for the changes. When a kitchen and the menu get out of sync with each other, it's the back-of-the-house that suffers. When they really get out of sync, it's the customer that suffers.”