Restaurant Purchasing and Quality Standards
The Importance of Quality Standards
One of the most important responsibilities that restaurant purchasers have is to ensure that the operation is obtaining the proper quality of products and services. This can’t be overstated.
In our experience, one of the best ways to accomplish this goal, day in and day out, is to keep open lines of communication with vendors and be very clear about the quality standards of the restaurant.
Vendors offer products and services at a variety of quality levels at corresponding price levels. A common misconception that we see regularly at Dine Market is that the lowest price trumps all other concerns. This isn’t the right way to look at the relationship between price and quality.
First, a foodservice operation needs to establish quality standards for every product and service required. Only then can competitive pricing be applied. Successful purchasing revolves around finding the best price, for the required quality, of a product or service.
Quality – “You know it when you see it”
The concept of quality can be hard to define. We regularly hear people say that although they can’t exactly explain what quality is, they "know it when they see it."
That’s fine in some situations but a restaurant operation isn’t one of them. Every day, each product purchase at a restaurant needs to be based on tangible and well-defined quality requirements.
In food service, quality is the relationship between the intended use of a product and its value to the operation. In order to define these factors, first the buyer needs to define what the product will be used for, only then can the proper quality and price be decided based on that use.
The Importance of Quality
We’ve been discussing quality in the context of the products that are purchased by a restaurant. Just as importantly, an organizational definition of quality needs to be created and shared to all team members. This is one of the hallmarks of a successful food service operation.
In the same way that a restaurant buyer demands quality from their vendors, customers demand quality from the restaurants that they patronize. Again, quality is:
The consistent delivery of products and services according to expected standards.
Those standards may be vastly different between a Michelin-starred fine dining establishment and a fast food restaurant, but the products and services provided by each should be based on an established set of standards. This is known as quality assurance.
Quality assurance refers to all activities that an organization uses to attain quality and encompasses every interaction, both FOH and BOH, that can affect it.
The quality assurance activities that relate to purchasing include:
One way to accomplish quality assurance is to establish an organization-wide commitment to total quality management. Here, an emphasis is placed on continually improving the processes and procedures that help the restaurant consistently meet quality requirements.
Quality standards identify and communicate required product characteristics and specifications to staff and vendors. These standards are unique to the restaurant or brand and are developed based on the operation’s concept, location, customers, and competition.
Quality standards should be written down and shared organization-wide. For many restaurants, they become the “mission statement” of the organization. Writing quality standards down and posting them has many benefits including:
Determining Quality Standards
Many foodservice organizations avoid establishing quality standards for the simple reason that determining and writing accurate quality standards is a complex and time consuming task.
There are several ways to streamline the process, including using industry and government publications that have been created for this very reason.
Examples of existing quality standard documentation include:
American Cutlery Manufacturers Association
American Seafood Distributors Association
Foodservice Equipment Distributors Association
National Livestock and Meat Board
National Pasta Association
National Poultry & Food Distributors Association
US Department of Agriculture
US Department of Commerce
Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America
Most product types have an association or industry group attached to them and information is readily available online.
Defining Quality using Product Specifications
Product specs are an important communications tool. They help ensure that managers, staff, purchasers, and vendors all have the same understanding about quality needs.
Requirements for product specifications:
Product specs are used during both purchasing and receiving and well defined and communicated specs help to both streamline and enforce quality control during both procedures.
During purchasing, product specs allow buyers to compare product prices across several vendors and make it easier to evaluate prices based on common quality definitions. This is vastly more important than simply looking for the lowest price for a product or service.
Every specification for a product should at the very least include:
This is the minimum amount of information required to correctly identify and order based on complete product specifications.
In some ways adhering to product specifications during receiving is more important than during purchasing. Why? Because receiving is where a large number of costly mistakes are commonly made.
It makes no sense to spend the time developing well-defined product specs and adhering to them during the purchasing process if orders are accepted without checking against the very same specs that were used during ordering.
The basic truth is that restaurants will pay for the products ordered, regardless of whether or not the products that are delivered are of the same quality.
A simple way to ensure that products received exactly match the products ordered is to properly train receiving staff on quality standards and giving them the tools to correctly identify them during delivery.
The Role of Vendors during Purchasing
The value in creating strong relationships with vendors is paramount, especially as it relates to maintaining strict quality standards. Your vendors are (or should be) absolute experts in the products that they sell and are a valuable resource during the creation of product specs.
Clear communication with vendors (ideally including the sharing of product specifications) can also greatly minimize errors made during ordering and receiving.
The purchaser’s job is to tell the vendor exactly what products are needed and the vendor’s job is to deliver those products and effectively communicate other options if the order cannot be fulfilled as promised.
When communicating product specification to vendors we can build on the earlier list in several ways:
1. Product name as used by vendor – this is important. Some products have multiple names and every product should be verified with the vendor before purchase if there are any potential alternatives. This is especially important when ordering produce and seafood as the same products can have many different commonly used names.
2. Intended use of product – the intended use describes how a product is meant to be used, prepared, and consumed. Vendors can be very helpful in defining quality requirements in this regard.
3. Packaging – packaging is often an afterthought for many purchasers but should always be considered. Highly perishable items must be packaged in a way that they are protected from contamination, moisture, loss of visual appeal, and crushing.
4. Purchase Unit Size – specifications should always include either the required size (exact weight measurements) or proper weight ranges.
5. Grade – poultry, eggs, and beef all have USDA grades, as do many other products. It is vitally important that the desired product grade is clearly communicated to vendors.
6. Market Form – although market form is pretty straightforward and usually very obvious it should also be verified before an order is placed. Fresh, frozen, and canned are common market forms.
Market form can also address preservation needs – vacuum packaging with no oxygen in the packaging can prolong shelf life and individually quick frozen (IQF) items, especially seafood, maintain their taste, texture, and appearance better than non-IQF freezing methods.
7. Color – again, this can be fairly obvious but is an often overlooked spec. Produce may come in a wide variety of different colors as can eggs.
8. Place of Origin – restaurants have the ability to purchase products from even the most far-flung corners of the globe. Each product origin may impart different characteristics into the appearance, flavor, and texture. This is particularly important for restaurants who label menu items by location or who wish to focus on local products.
9. Acceptable Substitutes – it’s always a good idea to provide vendors with specifications that identify acceptable substitutes for the products that are being ordered. Again, this comes down to clear communications between the purchasing team and the vendor and can save time and money when a product is unavailable.
Although it may seem daunting to establish quality standards, purchasing specifications, and quality assurance procedures it’s time well spent. An overarching theme that we’ll repeat again and again is the importance of clear communication and documentation. Purchasing and receiving errors can be very expensive but can be avoided by properly communicating requirements both to all team members and also to vendors.