Many corporate chefs at chain restaurants, as well as those heading up fine-dining kitchens, say now—during a time of economic hardship—is the time to maintain or improve food quality, not decrease it.
Given lower commodity prices and the need to offer cash-strapped consumers better reasons to part with their money, some chefs say they are seizing the opportunity and improving dishes by purchasing superior products.
“We are exploiting these economic times to upgrade ingredients without affecting the bottom line,” says Stefano Cordova, vice president and corporate chef of Bertucci’s , the 90-unit Italian dinnerhouse chain based Northborough, Mass. “We are taking advantage of the commodity prices coming down.”
For example, Cordova says he recently started purchasing, “Sicilian sea salt; natural chicken; all-natural, unbleached, nonbromated flour and all-natural, hormone-free milk.”
Lower dairy prices have proven a boon in the ability to offer the hormone-free milk, he says.
“The price of dairy has definitely come down dramatically,” he says. “We moved from regular milk for the same price that we paid before. It was a good opportunity for us, especially since 90 percent of the milk is used for the kids’ menu. I had been trying to get that milk for a long time.”
Since lobster prices have come down by about 20 percent when compared with the same time last year, Cordova says he will highlight the seafood in an upcoming limited-time-offer dish with fettuccine and shrimp in a light cream sauce. The plan is to sell the dish for $16.95, the same price a tomato-based lobster and shrimp pasta dish sold for last spring. But this year there will be an extra ounce of seafood made up of half shrimp and half lobster, Cordova says.
Business at Bertucci’s has been “pretty much stable,” he says, with the exception that catering to businesses, especially for takeout lunches, is declining. Still, the per-person check average remains at about $14.50 to $15.
“It is much easier to gain profitability through increased sales, which means a better guest experience,” as opposed to cutting food costs, says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies for WD Partners, a restaurant design and development firm based in Dublin, Ohio.
“We’re seeing more independent operators banding together to create local co-ops,” Lombardi says. “There is even more pressure to negotiate the last 10th of a cent for larger chains. There’s a lot of science and a lot of art to negotiating.”
These days many practiced buyers are negotiating for long-term buying contracts, such as for 18-month periods, to ensure “stable and predictable” pricing in this shaky time, Lombardi says. But that’s a gamble, he adds, as prices rise and fall like a roller coaster.
Smart food buying “is like the old Vaudeville act of balancing a plate on a stick,” he explains. “It is a balancing act.”
Kelley Jones, managing partner of Suite & Tender  in San Diego, says he’s finding savings by working with and building relations with vendors to “negotiate prices down.” He’s also taking advantage of “prompt-payment discounts” of 2 percent to 3 percent for paying within 15 days.
Melissa Kelly of Primo Restaurant Ltd. , which is based in Rockland, Maine, and has outlets in Orlando, Fla., and Tucson, Ariz., explains the key to her success boils down to total utilization of ingredients.
“I call it full-circle cooking,” she says. “Nothing gets wasted.”
She purchases whole lambs, veal calves, pigs and sides of beef and applies a lot of braises to the less tender cuts. She says that her guests enjoy such long-cooked dishes, which they can’t get everywhere. She’s also offered headcheese and even trotters when making use of animals from nose to toe.
The trick to getting her team to follow her lead is “to get staff involved,” she says. “I want them to understand the business and bottom line.”
At her Maine eatery, which is a seasonal operation, she raises pigs and grows edible plants, but those efforts aren’t a cost savings when labor costs are calculated.
“We’re lucky if we break even,” she admits.
In addition to access to just-picked quality, Kelly keeps up her farming for other side benefits like baby plants, such as pea shoots, edible blooms and wax from bees that are raised primarily for honey. She uses the wax for candles.
Saving face and dollars
“I prefer closing the restaurant than to decrease the quality,” says Franck Savoy, managing partner of Restaurant Guy Savoy  in Las Vegas, which is an offshoot of the critically acclaimed Parisian outlet.
“Business is a little slower, but it is not as dramatic as it could be,” he says, noting that it is down about 15 percent since last October and November.
Still, Savoy says he hasn’t changed menu prices, including for his $68 artichoke soup with black truffles and mushroom brioche. But he did add a discounted pre-theater, three-course menu for $98, “which is a bargain for us,” he says. His “Menu Prestige” sells for $290 and everyone at the table must order it.
“My mantra is ‘Don’t discount, don’t discount,’ ” says Steve Schimoler of Crop  in Cleveland. “The minute you lower the value for something you’re doing, you’re screwed because you never get back to that value.”
But Schimoler says he saves money by buying local foods, such as cheese and produce.
“I get rifted when I hear this elitist attitude when it comes to local,” he says. Some fellow food buyers “wouldn’t divulge their sources. It’s about getting critical mass” in order to support food growers and makers.
He and his staff prepare salumi, Italian-style bacon, cured and smoked bacon, and pâtés. He’s also traded out veal for pork cheeks for a Milanese-style dish. For the item, he pounds and then breads the jowl meat.
“Pork cheeks are very flavorful,” he says, adding that the meat is accompanied by a salad with olives, fennel and walnuts and sells for $16.
Paley also takes advantage of house-grown produce. He says he learned from a mistake last year of growing too many varieties and small batches of items on his rooftop garden and the restaurant’s nearby farm. Now he’s producing more of the same herbs and vegetables in larger qualities to be more efficient and useful.
Keeping on a charted course
But as many chefs struggle to maintain menu prices, some in the highest of high-end dining rooms seem immune to the turbulent economy.
“Our clients want fine products,” says 53-year-old chef Mark Militello of 1 Bleu in Bal Harbour, Fla. “We’re really careful [about purchasing]. But I haven’t gotten into inexpensive cuts” of meat.
Militello’s menu features crab-crusted black grouper with local vegetables, roasted potatoes and a light horseradish sauce for $36, as well as crispy-skin snapper with chorizo and fingerling potatoes and saffron for $23.
“It is the same concept I’ve had for 20 years,” he says.
But for the rest of the industry the question remains, how long will diners be scrimping on dining out?
“I think it will take a while for consumers will climb out of their foxholes,” Lombardi says.