What should prime cost be in a restaurant?

By Marisa Parker, CPA | Published on 10/3/2021

The restaurant industry is known for having very slim profit margins. According to Restaurantowner.com, the pre-tax average net profit for independent fast-casual (quick service) restaurants is 6-7% and 4-5% for full-service restaurants. When working with such small margins, it is essential to the health of your business to track prime costs. Analyzing these costs can help you decide areas that need adjustments, whether through cutting costs or raising prices, to increase profitability. Many owners and managers know this but are unaware of what exactly is included in prime costs and how to analyze them.

What are Prime Costs?

Prime Costs = Cost of Sales + Labor

Cost of Sales includes, and can be broken out by, the cost of the following:

  • Food and paper (for Quick Service Restaurants (QSR)
  • Soft beverages
  • Liquor
  • Beer
  • Wine
  • Merchandise

If a restaurant has delivery and takeout, this also includes packaging, utensils, etc. that are not part of your dine in cost of sales.

Labor includes the following:

  • Management salaries and wages
  • Staff salaries and wages
  • Employee benefits

Many operators mistakenly exclude employee benefits when calculating labor cost, including payroll taxes, because they track labor costs using their POS, which typically excludes benefits. Labor is further separated between back of house, front of house, catering, administrative, payroll taxes, insurance, retirement, etc.

Prime Cost as a Percentage of Sales

Prime costs as a percentage of sales (prime costs / total sales) determines how much is left over for the rest of your expenses and profitability. For example, if the ratio is 80%, this means you have 20 cents per dollar for the rest of your expenses, including rent, insurance, interest, paying yourself, etc. The following chart provides benchmarks you can use to compare (provided by Restaurantowner.com):

Prime Cost as a Percentage of Sales
Full-Service Quick-Service
Maximum 65% 60%
Average 60-65% 55-60%
Low 56-59% 51-54%
Best in Class 55% 50%

As you can see, you want to aim for your prime cost ratio to be below 60%, and no more than 65% of sales. You also should not aim for too low, or it could also compromise future profitability. For instance, if labor costs were decreased significantly due to layoffs, this could reduce customer satisfaction and therefore sales.

How to Analyze Your Prime Costs

Let’s say your restaurant has a prime cost as a percentage of sales ratio of 75%. Upon analyzing your prime costs, you determine this is due to an increase in the cost of food. If you were to have a recipe costing software, such as MarginEdge or xtraCHEF, you would be able to track ingredients used in each of your recipes and have a notification when the price increases above a set threshold. You might realize that a certain ingredient price went up, therefore you could either use alternative ingredients, remove that menu item, give smaller portions, or raise the price.

The price increase may also be due to another food cost problem that has nothing to do with the cost of ingredients such as waste or portion control issues. One way to catch this is to use your recipe costing software to calculate your “Ideal Food Cost” (also known as Theoretical Cost) and compare that to your Actual Food Cost.

You can do this using the following steps:

  1.  Use your recipe costing software to calculate the quantity and cost for each ingredient used in a particular recipe to determine the total cost of that recipe which can then be divided by the sales price for that menu item to determine the food cost %.
  2. Calculate your Ideal Food Cost. This is the cost expected for a certain sales mix assuming “ideal” circumstances (meaning no waste, proper portioning, etc.)
  3. Compare this Ideal Food Cost to your Actual Cost. Your recipe costing software should provide this report (for example, MarginEdge has this information in its theoretical usage report).

If Actual Food Costs end up being higher than your Ideal Food Cost, this analysis can help identify issues such as waste, portion control, receiving problems (dishonest delivery drivers, inaccurate weights), theft, unrecorded sales, accounting error, or outdated menu costs.

Your prime costs could also have increased due to the cost of labor. When looking deeper into the data, you might realize that there is excessive overtime due to labor shortage and you might need to consider hiring more staff. If you have staff on salaries that are fixed, you might increase hours worked or open an extra day. These are just some of the ways that the data can be analyzed weekly to make important decisions.

Prime Cost Reporting

Here at RY CPA’s, we provide weekly, biweekly, and monthly insight into your prime costs directly from the reconciled financials prepared by our team in Quickbooks Online. We leverage software such as Fathom, xtraCHEF, and Marginedge to streamline the transfer of information from operations to accounting, then finally combine the data into a beautiful report. Here is a video explaining our process in more detail.

For the analysis to provide benefit, trends in prime costs need to be analyzed over different reporting periods (ideally week over week). Unlike rent, insurance, and other relatively fixed expenses, prime costs can fluctuate significantly from one week to the next. To increase, or even maintain, profitability for your restaurant, these costs should not be ignored. Restaurantowner.com, on average, sees that prime costs decrease 2 to 4 percentage points just by reviewing them on a weekly basis and responding in time. If you generate $3m/year in revenue, that is anywhere from $60k/year to $120k/year in savings, an amount that could make or break your business model.

Finally, it is extremely important to ensure the data being used to prepare these reports is reliable as a result of proper accounting and bookkeeping.

If you need any assistance, please feel free to contact us.