Stainless-steel equipment gleams in the background, sauté pans sizzle, hoods whir, a timer beeps, and a table running the width of the line seats a handful of people. As plated dishes hit the table, chef Brian Dorsey pauses to explain each one in crystalline detail. For all intents and purposes, this could be a normal night (pre-pandemic, of course) at any number of restaurants across the state. But this particular scene plays out at neither a chef’s table nor in a restaurant, but instead inside Sysco’s state-of-the-art test kitchen in Denver.
This five-days-a-week affair isn’t a cushy martini lunch where top-tier clients are wined and dined. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: It’s a kitchen session requested by the customer to explore new menu items, address food costs, and drill down to improve old favorites. It’s business as forward motion. “Prior to the session, I work with the rep to dive into what the customer needs and wants to achieve,” says Dorsey, who is the company’s culinary specialist for the southern Rockies region. “Is it changing up the burger, creating a limited-time offer, or a menu revamp? From there, we start brainstorming with what [the customer is] currently purchasing and what their menu looks like.” Sometimes the three-hour workshop entails reworking a patty melt or perfecting the breading on fried chicken; other times it’s creating 12 fully composed courses.
Alys Romer, owner of Alys’ Restaurant in La Veta, a tiny town in southern Colorado, called in help for a special catering gig at which the menu for 100 couldn’t include any soy, gluten, dairy, or garlic. “I called them up,” she says, “[I said,] ‘Hey Sysco, can we have kitchen time?’ And we pulled it off.”
Bob Bruso, who owns three Colorado restaurants—20-year-old Robert’s Italian Restaurant in Littleton, seven-year-old Robert’s Italian Deli in the Denver Tech Center, and one-year-old Cabin Creek Brewing in Georgetown—also takes advantage of the resource. “I sent my cooks up there to work on sauces,” he says.
These sessions aren’t a free-for-all for Dorsey; after all, creating a dream dish that doesn’t fit a restaurant’s budget is worthless. His job is to eye food costs and create within those constraints. “It’s not just coming up with recipes; we cost out those recipes,” Dorsey says. He usually welcomes 12 to 15 customers to the kitchen each week. For all the expertise he imparts in these kitchen workshops, Dorsey surmises that only about a quarter of Sysco customers take advantage of the free service. “It’s underutilized,” he says, acknowledging that it can be near impossible for an operator to break away from the day-to-day business of running a restaurant. But when they do, the results, combined with menu analysis, are often black and white.
Take one of Sysco’s thousands of customers that serve fries. This relatively inexpensive ingredient can easily slip the knot on food cost if cooks eyeball a two- to four-ounce serving rather than weighing it. “Say [a restaurant does] 300 meals a day with fries,” Dorsey explains. “If you do the math and say one ounce of fries is 20 cents, times 300 a day, times 365 days a year, that’s your trip to Cabo. Or that’s your pay raise. And that’s just one little item on the menu.” (In case you don’t want to do the math, that’s more than $21,000 in fry giveaways.) Sales consultant Mark Washburn, who sells 70 different kinds of fries out of the Sysco portfolio, takes the analysis a step further. “Some chefs choose the cheapest variety, thinking it will give them the best food cost,“ he says. “Not true. Really cheap French fries are cheap for a reason. They’re bits and pieces and lots of ends. It takes six ounces to fill up the plate portion.” In contrast, a more expensive product yields a better-quality, longer fry that stacks up and fills the same plate portion with only four ounces. “When you break this down by the ounce and true-portion cost, you’re getting a better product and spending less,” Washburn says. And seeing those fries plated side by side in Dorsey’s kitchen? It’s a persuasive visual.
After years of working on corporate flavor applications in New York and New Jersey, Romer fell into the restaurant business by accident. In the mid-1990s, after catering an event for her brother at the La Veta Inn in the town of 800, the owners of the hotel asked if she’d like to take over the restaurant. She took the leap. “Coming from Manhattan to La Veta was a big culture shock,” Romer laughs. Another shock: running a restaurant. “It was trial and error. I opened and I had to learn as I went.”
In the time since (first at the La Veta Inn, then Alys’ Fireside Cafe in Walsenburg, and finally Alys’ Restaurant in La Veta), Romer has come to rely heavily on her Sysco rep. “They’re always telling me about new products and what’s available,” she says, remembering when she was introduced to bistro steak and flatiron, which at the time were underutilized cuts. She now regularly serves both. Romer’s small menu of five or so items changes almost nightly and includes dishes such as barramundi meunière and shakshuka with poached corvina. Everything—from dessert to salad dressing—is made from scratch in her tiny kitchen. The 15-seat restaurant sits inside a house; the kitchen is essentially a home setup with an electric 30-inch LG range and no hood. Any grilling takes place outside. Storage is always an issue.
a customer’s leaf lettuce wasn’t holding as long as it should have. It turns out the delicate leaves were stored in front of the walk-in’s condenser fan. Dorsey added seven days of shelf-life to the product with a simple shift.
This is a critical point for Dorsey, who seeks to understand a customer’s business before he helps them during a kitchen session. “I can spitball in our kitchen all day long, but I have to understand [their] space. I ask sales associates to take photographs,” he says. During the pandemic, he ramped up off-site visits while Sysco’s corporate kitchen was closed. “We’ve been doing on-the-road kitchen sessions. It’s the same procedure, but I pack everything up and bring mini fryers, induction burners, or whatever, and I go to the customer. I get to see what they’re working with on a daily basis,” Dorsey explains.
These visits often net troubleshooting success. In one case, a customer’s leaf lettuce wasn’t holding as long as it should have. It turns out the delicate leaves were stored in front of the walk-in’s condenser fan. Dorsey added seven days of shelf-life to the product with a simple shift. At another location, he suggested moving the ticket printer to maximize flow. And in a small mountain restaurant where ticket times kept getting backed up, he showed the chef a different way to expedite. ”I can be the problem solver who says, ‘You’re used to doing it this way, but let’s try it that way,’” he says. Whether in the corporate kitchen or on location, Dorsey’s—and the company’s—ultimate goal is to understand a business in order to help make it better and more profitable.
Bruso got his start working at a pizzeria in New York when he was 12 and he never left the industry. When he and his wife Jean piled into a Ford Taurus and made the trip to Colorado in 1990, it didn’t take him long to open Robert’s Italian Restaurant in Littleton. The spot quickly became a neighborhood staple and grew from its original 15 seats to 115. Now the menu of antipasti, Italian sausage and peppers, pizza, and red-sauce dishes is supported by an extensive wine list with 24 wine taps and 40 to 50 different styles of root beer.
In 2013, Bruso opened Robert’s Italian Deli in the Denver Tech Center to serve droves of hungry office workers (that location is closed until the area bounces back from the pandemic). And then, in July 2020, despite having stepped back from day-to-day operations, he opened Cabin Creek Brewing in Georgetown with a group of partners. Each restaurant is its own beast with its own clientele: neighbor, office worker, tourist.
each and every item on a menu—how it’s sold, how it’s parceled out—is like a mini game of Jenga. Shift one component and the whole structure can crumble.
For most of his 20 years in Colorado, Bruso has worked with Sysco. In addition to utilizing Dorsey’s kitchen to work on new dishes and fine-tuning old ones, he also dives into the menu engineering services. “They help you develop a better menu strategically for labor costs and menu costs,” he says, citing the weekly conversation he has with consultant Washburn, where they go over purchasing decisions and market fluctuations. “During COVID, Mark called and said, ‘Bob, your burgers you normally use, we have extra cases [because demand is lower],’” Bruso says. “He’s never just trying to sell me…he’s always trying to do right by my business.”
Washburn homes in on what he calls “food service math,” where he takes an in-depth look at a restaurant’s minute food costs, including labor and packaging. For example, with the rise of to-go orders, there’s been an uptick in container purchases. Operators are so busy getting orders out the door that they often don’t have the opportunity to cost out each of those components. “Sometimes the receptacle can be more than the product,” Washburn says. If a side of ranch is 25 cents but the to-go cup and lid adds up to 40 cents, it’s a loss. “A lot of folks don’t think about that. We might need to raise prices, or use an alternative product to lower that cost.”
As any restaurant operator knows, each and every item on a menu—how it’s sold, how it’s parceled out—is like a mini game of Jenga. Shift one component and the whole structure can crumble. The success of a restaurant lies on the careful management of every single detail, right down to that side of ranch or the extra ounce of French fries. “This is where we come in,” says Dorsey. “Anyone can sell groceries and pick up a check. But answering, ‘How do I store it, execute it, cross-utilize it? How do I do all of these things to be profitable?’—this is what we do.”
Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to email@example.com.