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Fixed and Variable Costs in a Restaurant

Many restaurant owners and managers do not understand the difference between their fixed and variable costsThe problem with defining the two types of costs relates to their connection with sales.  In addition, reasonable assumptions have to be made in order to delineate between fixed and variable costs in the food service industry. 

This article will explain the difference between the two costs related to food service, provide examples of both and educate the reader on proper analysis procedures to create baselines for improvement.  I am a big believer in the feedback loop method of business operations in order to maximize profit and reduce overall stress for the owners and management team. 

In general, most readers have been taught or believe that the variable costs are really only two items in a restaurant.  The first is the food costs itself and the second is the labor associated with producing and serving the meals.  Once you are done reading this article, you will discover that variable costs are actually broader in scope than just these two basic costs. 

Furthermore, many small business owners believe that if labor and food are variable, the remaining costs must be fixed in comparison.  This is not necessarily true especially as the restaurant’s volume of sales increase and more costs begin to occur.  Before beginning to go into detail, a short definition of each of the terms used is provided to remind the reader of their meaning. 

Fixed Costs – those cash costs paid each month whether one patron or 30,000 patrons are served.  A perfect example relates to costs associated with occupancy.  These include rent, insurance and property taxes.

Variable Costs – the technical definition relates to those costs that fluctuate (generally increase) as the volume of sales increase.  The most common identifiable cost in a restaurant is the food cost.

Mixed Costs – a derivative of both fixed and variable expenditures as one single cost; in the restaurant industry a good example is the water bill.  In general this monthly bill has a fixed required payment whether the restaurant washes dishes or not.  Think of the standard account fee.  The variable element of the water bill is the actual consumption of water.  The fixed element is spread over the volume of water consumed so the price per gallon decreases as the volume of water consumed increases. 

Sunk Costs – costs incurred to get into the restaurant business yet have no real ongoing costs as the restaurant serves patrons.  A good example relates to restaurant equipmentThe owner paid for this equipment upfront prior to opening.  Therefore, the cash paid is ‘Sunk’ or gone.  The only way to get it back is to either earn it back using the equipment or selling the equipment. 

Accrual and Cash – the form of financial presentation related to actual costs associated with business operations.  In a restaurant business, the most common presentation format is accrual due to the nature of receiving payment from the customer upon service.  Very few if any restaurants use the cash basis of accounting because there is no real tax advantage related to this presentation format.  However, when discussing fixed and variable costs, the standard protocol relates to actual cash expenditures. 

The following sections explain the respective fixed and variable costs in a restaurant and the relationship to both accrual and cash basis analysis.  

Fixed Costs in a Restaurant 

The key to understanding fixed costs in a restaurant is its relationship to the accrual form of accounting.  There are actual cash fixed costs and accrual fixed costs.  Yep, I know, you are saying to yourself that this guy is crazy.  Well, bear with me and let’s explore this concept.  In a typical profit and loss statement for a restaurant, the presentation format looks a little like this: 

Sales                                      $ZZZ,ZZZ

Costs of Meals:
–      Staff Labor          ZZ,ZZZ
–      Food                    ZZ,ZZZ
–      Drinks                 ZZ,ZZZ
–      Alcohol                ZZ,ZZZ
–      Supplies               ZZ,ZZZ
–      Sub-Total Meals                 ZZZ,ZZZ
Gross Profit (Margin)              ZZ,ZZZ

–       Management        ZZ,ZZZ
–       Occupancy             Z,ZZZ
–       CC Discounts         Z,ZZZ
–       Marketing/Adv       Z,ZZZ
–       Communications     Z,ZZZ
–       Utilities                   Z,ZZZ
–       Insurance                Z,ZZZ
–       Office Ops                 ZZZ
–       Taxes & Licenses   Z,ZZZ
–       Maintenance           Z,ZZZ
–       Professional Fees    Z,ZZZ
–       Other                          ZZZ
–       Sub-Total Expenses             ZZ,ZZZ
Operational Profit                    ZZ,ZZZ

Capitalization Costs:
–       Depreciation        ZZ,ZZZ
–       Interest                   Z,ZZZ
–       Amortization          Z,ZZZ
–       Sub-Total Cap Costs           ZZ,ZZZ
Net Profit                                  $Z,ZZZ 

Those costs in the ‘Cost of Meals’ section (commonly referred to as the Cost of Goods Sold) are typically variable in nature.  As an example, the cost of alcohol only goes up as you prepare drinks which are then included in sales.  Thus the definition associated with variable.  The costs in the expenses section include both fixed and variable types of costs.  The fixed costs are those costs whereby you write actual checks for each month or on a regular basis.  The most obvious ones include occupancy, communications (phone system, internet etc.), marketing, insurance, and licenses.  Typically taxes are only paid if you generate sales or pay employees (payroll taxes).  

Notice that these cash payments are done on some form of a recurring basis.  That is the primary attribute of a cash based fixed cost.  Notice how I clarified that the expense is cash based?  Now let’s talk about those non cash based fixed costs, or appropriately stated as accrual based fixed costs.  These types of costs occur on a regular basis too.  The exception though is that they are an accounting generated cost and the most common one is depreciation.  If you need a better understanding of depreciation, I have written several articles and they are as follows: 

In the ‘Capitalization Costs’ section of the Profit and Loss Statement small business owners want to know what are the costs associated with setting up the company when we started out.  In the restaurant business this includes the equipment, kitchen construction, initial utensils and kitchenware, the dining room furniture, fixtures, signage and the initial menus.  All of these are referred to as fixed assetsPlease do not confuse fixed assets with fixed costs; they are not the same thing.  

These fixed assets are depreciated via accrual accounting entries and posted to the profit and loss statement as depreciation.  In addition there are some intangible costs that are amortized over a period of time.  All accrual based fixed asset costs and intangible costs relate to a sunk cost customarily paid out during the initial start-up of the restaurant.  The Capitalization section is merely recapturing an allocated share using accrual accounting.  Therefore, these fixed costs are a non-cash based fixed cost.  

What about the interest in that section?  Well, this one is interesting in that it is a recurring monthly item, but it is a fixed cost that is cash based.  More importantly, this illustrates something that is important for the small business owner to understand, just because it is a cash based fixed cost, doesn’t mean it stays the same value from month to month.  When the equipment was purchased, many restaurants borrow money to complete the purchase or build out of the kitchen.  The loan is paid back monthly but the interest on the loan varies from month to month depending on the principle balance remaining.  This means that although the cost is fixed, it can vary from period to period.  So I often joke with new business owners that fixed costs are variable.  Get it?  I know, it wasn’t that funny.

OK, now that I have explained the two forms of fixed costs (cash and accrual based), let’s go onto variable costs. 

Variable Costs in a Restaurant 

The technical definition to variable costs is those costs that change with the change in sales.  So, the obvious ones in the restaurant are the food and staff.  The staff includes everyone from the hostess through the dishwashers.  The chef, waiters and busboys; everyone that participates in getting that patron served food and refreshments, is considered staff.  The entire staff’s payroll is variable in nature.  If you didn’t have the customer, you wouldn’t need them to provide the service, so their costs do change with the volume of sales.  

In addition, any associated costs with the service pool are also variable in nature.  This includes payroll taxes, benefits and training costs too.  Notice now how I am beginning to go beyond the traditional definition of just food and labor?  

Now let’s go back up to the profit and loss statement above.  Those costs in the Cost of Meals section are all variable in relation to serving food.  Even the supplies (napkins, table clothes, etc.) are variable.  But, in the expense section of the profit and loss statement, only a few of the costs are variable.  The first one that often happens relates to how the payment from the customer is processed.  Every restaurant has to pay discount fees to process credit and debit cards.  This is referred to as ‘CC Discounts’.  If a customer didn’t use the card, there would be no variable expense.  So this expense is in direct correlation to a volume issue which is the basis of the definition of variable expense.  

Other variable expenses include maintenance because maintenance is a function of volume.  If nobody showed up at the restaurant, how much maintenance and cleaning would the operation experience?  Very little and maintenance increases as the restaurant is used more by customers.  

So let’s talk about some of the marginal items such as utilities?  You see utilities are mixed in nature.  Some of the utility costs exist as a regular recurring monthly fee.  Think of this, before you even have your first customer of the day, you have to turn on the lights, heat up the grill and go into the freezer (which runs 24/7).  Therefore, this electrical aspect of each monthly bill is fixed in operation.  It’s when the customer comes in that we turn up the grill and cook their food.  This marginal use of energy is variable.  So what do you call this particular expense?  

Well, to be honest with you, it is referred to as ‘Mixed’ in nature.  But it is only analyzed or reviewed in detail when an owner has a very large bill like in the 10’s of thousands per month related to this cost.  Other than this rare situation, these types of mixed costs are customarily treated as fixed.  The reason is that it is more akin to fixed than to variable therefore classified as fixed.  This goes for other types of expenses with similar attributes: 

  • Marketing/Advertising
  • Communications
  • Professional Fees
  • Office Operations
  • Management Salaries/Wages and the Associated Benefits 

So in the expenses section of the profit and loss statement the following are customarily classed as variable: 

  1. CC Discounts
  2. Maintenance
  3. Taxes

 The key to these expenses is that they fluctuate greatly with the volume of sales in the restaurant.  The other expenses tend to remain relatively stable or flat and are indifferent to volume. 

I do want to bring up one of the more interesting fixed costs because this one has a really true mixed costs status.  This is ‘Occupancy’.  In many mall leases, the lease for the space has a fixed component and a variable component.  Often the clause will read that the minimum monthly rental payment is X dollars and then there is a percentage of sales charge in addition to the flat amount.  So in a typical month, the rent paid can vary several hundred dollars.  I advise business owners to still call this a fixed cost because the variance isn’t significant enough to warrant breaking the cost out into the two components.  Remember, fixed costs can vary from month to month as I tried to clarify above. 

Basic Analysis of Fixed and Variable Costs in a Restaurant

So why does all of this matter?  Remember we are business to make a profit.  As an owner you need to understand the relationship of these costs to generating profit.  What you want to do is to identify each cost on the profit and loss statement as either fixed or variable.  In general the fixed costs will not significantly change (they can change as I described above) from one accounting period to another.  However, variable costs should have a high correlation relationship to sales.  This is where the value of having this ratio comes in handy in determining productivity and profitability. 

As an owner of a restaurant, you want to establish a baseline or a value of what are the variable costs of total sales.  It will take several accounting periods to determine this ratio.  Even then, this ratio may change related to seasonal or particular holidays.  Once you have stored up enough data, then you can begin to compare current activity against what you believe should be the normal operational ratio.  As an example, let’s look at 6 months of variable cost ratios for an Italian style restaurant: 

Month              Ratio
January                .57
February              .54
March                 .56
April                   .58
May                    .53
June                    .55 

The owner reviews this ratio and determines that the better than average in February relates to Valentine’s Day as the volume of sales increased significantly and the staffing costs remained stable.  In May, both Mother’s Day and college graduation (the restaurant is near a college) activity again generated a significant increase in sales and the staff was able to manage without bringing in additional help. 

In July the ratio jumps to more than .60.  Why do you think this happens?  Well, you can use your experience and deduce that staffing costs remained relatively level while the volume of sales decreased due to summer activity.  Remember, this is summer time and that nearby college is not in session.  

This helps management realize that in the following summer, they either release some of the staff or force staff members to take vacation during this period.  This should help to reduce the variable cost of operations and keep the ratio in line with what is considered reasonable or normal. 

Another positive attribute of understanding your variable cost ratio is then determining the break-even point for operations.  Let’s assume that the total fixed cost for this restaurant is $21,000 per month.  How much in sales do we need to cover those fixed costs (break-even)?  Well, here we go with that Algebra stuff again: 

Sales Volume needed to cover $21,000
Therefore the formula is Fixed Costs Needed = The Contribution Margin per Sale (Contribution Margin is the Total Sale less Variable Costs) Times Sales

Therefore $21,000= (1 – .56 which is the average variable cost ratio) Times Sales
Therefore $21,000 = .44 of Sales
Therefore $21,000/.44 = Sales (Divide both sides by .44)
Therefore the Restaurant Needs $47,727 of Sales to Cover $21,000 of Fixed Costs 

Let’s work this from the cost analysis format: 

Sales:                                      $47,727
Variable Costs @ .56                26,727
Fixed Costs Contribution        $21,000 

Now you can see the value, understanding the relationship between the two types of costs can generate for the management team.  It is essential to monitor and create an acceptable baseline and work towards improving the financial performance of the restaurant.  I’ll prove this to you.  Suppose we could improve the variable costs by really controlling our staffing needs so that the variable costs decrease to .53.  How much improvement do we generate using the above example?  Let’s see: 

Sales:                                     $47,727
Variable Costs @.53                25,295
Fixed Costs Contribution         22,432
Actual Fixed Costs                   21,000
Money in Owner’s Pocket        $1,432

This is the exact tool the major restaurants use to generate improvements in financial performance.  There are other tools and tricks, I don’t cover them here, but there are articles on my website that go into more detail.  Act on Knowledge.

If interested in my help as an accountant or consultant, contact me through the My Services’ page in the footer.  

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About David J Hoare (420 Articles)
I spent 12 Years as a Certified Public Accountant, Over 20 Years of Practice in Accounting and Consulting, Controller in Management of Closely Held Operations, Masters of Science in Accounting, Prepared over 1,000 Business Tax Returns and Hundreds of Individual Returns