Little things mean a lot

Have you ever been tempted, when dining out, to compare the price of your meal to what it would have cost to prepare at home? Let’s see … chicken, $1.19 a pound, so let’s say 60 cents. Fancy mushrooms, at most $8 a pound, but there’s only a couple ounces here, so add a dollar. A splash of wine, some herbs, a few dirt-cheap potatoes. These people are making a fortune!

To be fair, you’ll probably remember that the owner has a staff to pay and probably a landlord, too. Still, as you sign the bill, your inner penny-pincher is whispering: Really? A 600-percent markup? REALLY?

What factors contribute to the end cost of a restaurant meal? Aside from actual food cost, wages and rent, what else must the price of an entrée cover?

Well, there’s linen. Rental linen service includes your pristine white tablecloth, sure, and it also includes your cleverly folded cloth napkins. It includes that bar towel the bartender just dropped on the floor. He’s got to throw it in the hamper and switch to a clean one now, or whenever it gets soiled. He may go through five or 10 a night. Linen includes his apron, the servers’ aprons, the cooks’ and chef’s aprons … and the cooks’ towels. I have seen grown restaurant managers reduced to tears when they see how many rented terrycloth side towels a shift of line cooks can use in a single service. Linen service usually also includes floor mats, which are changed every few days.

China and glassware. Your china may be an heirloom set passed down by someone’s grandma, displayed in a beautiful dining room cabinet alongside those cool champagne goblets you got as a wedding gift. In a restaurant, china and glassware are the commercial fishermen of small wares, putting their lives on the line every service, with no thanks or appreciation for longevity.

If it’s lucky enough not to get broken, a plate, glass or goblet will eventually be discarded for having a chipped edge, or being scarred by repeated trips through the dishwasher. Often they break before they have a chance to show wear and tear. Whenever you hear a plate or a glass breaking behind the kitchen doors, some butter-fingered server or dishwasher is probably hearing a manager say: “If you see the word ‘china’ on your paycheck stub, it doesn’t mean you won a trip.”

There are chemicals to buy, which keep the dishes and the floor clean. There’s all manner of insurance: business, unemployment, possibly a contribution to health insurance for the management. There are utensils in the kitchen and flatware in the dining room to pay for. There are coffee-stirrers. There are sweetener packets. There are sauceboats, dressing carafes, salt and pepper shakers. Chalk for the menu board. The menus themselves have to be designed and printed. Is there a tech-savvy fry cook in the kitchen who builds and maintains websites for fun? If not, you’ll be paying someone else to do it.

So, next time you wonder how much profit a restaurant owner makes from a single entrée, know this: The average U.S. restaurant profit margin hovers just under 5 percent after all expenses, not including taxes. And if that owner forgets to budget for new napkin rings — there goes his family trip to Gatlinburg.

So please enjoy the cool napkin rings, but enjoy them here. Some folks slip them into their purses because they think there’s an endless supply in the back. There isn’t.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef at Gardiner Point residence hall.