How to Manage Your Restaurant Labor Cost Percentage

How to Manage Your Restaurant Labor Cost Percentage
AJ Beltis

By AJ Beltis

Before restaurants can record a profit, they need to take several expenses into account—inventory, kitchen equipment, building utilities, and of course, labor.

As the demand for a higher minimum wage continues to grow on a state and a federal level, restaurant owners and managers are understandably paying more attention to their restaurant’s labor cost percentage. This is certainly true for the independent entrepreneur, but even large and resourceful restaurant franchises and groups are not immune to the threat—and in some cases, the reality—of rising labor costs.

However, restaurant owners and leaders can take clear, actionable steps towards understanding and managing their labor cost percentage without taking a toll on employee productivity, customer satisfaction, or their bottom lines.

In this post, we’ll define restaurant labor cost percentage, explain how to calculate it, share our thoughts on an ideal labor cost percentage, and give you some tips for controlling restaurant labor cost percentage for your business.

What is Restaurant Labor Cost Percentage?

As a percentage of sales, restaurant labor cost percentage is the amount spent on all labor-related costs compared to your gross sales in a specific time period.

Labor cost includes more than just wages, so keep the following in mind when calculating labor cost percentage for your restaurant, or else you won’t arrive at the most accurate percentage for your business:

  • Salaries, Hourly Wages, and Overtime Pay
  • Benefits (Health Care, Employee Discounts, etc.)
  • Paid Time Off (Vacations and Sick Days)
  • Payroll Taxes
  • Premium Pay for Labor Compliance

Some businesses choose to calculate labor cost as a percentage of operating costs rather than a percentage of sales. While there is no “correct” or “incorrect” way to approach this, the most important thing to remember is that you must be consistent in your calculations. If one franchise owner reports labor cost as a percentage of sales to corporate while another owner reports labor cost as a percentage of total costs, this can lead to a lot of frustration behind the scenes.

That said, on a corporate level, it makes sense to require all locations to report metrics as a percentage of the same metric—either costs or sales.

How to Calculate Labor Cost Percentage

Labor cost percentage is determined by dividing all labor-related costs by your gross sales in a given time period, then multiplying that quotient by 100%.

To determine labor cost as a percentage of operating costs, simply replace gross sales with total costs in the equation.

Let’s look at an example:

Jimmy’s Pizzeria grosses $300,000 in sales each month. The amount spent on all labor related costs—including payroll taxes, benefits, etc.—totals $81,000.

The formula for calculating labor cost percentage is:

Restaurant Labor Cost Percentage = (Total Labor Costs) ÷ (Total Sales) x 100%
Restaurant Labor Cost Percentage = ($81,000) ÷ ($300,000) x 100%
Restaurant Labor Cost Percentage = .27 x 100%
Restaurant Labor Cost Percentage = 27%

In this example, Jimmy’s Pizzeria’s labor cost percentage (more specifically, as a percentage of sales) for the month is 27%.

What is the Ideal Restaurant Labor Cost Percentage?

A good labor cost percentage for a restaurant spans between 29% and 33% and is dependent on multiple factors including, but not limited to:

  • Restaurant concept
  • Restaurant location
  • Size of staff
  • Efficiency of staff

Multi-location restaurateurs should note that the size, location, and performance of each store differs, which means it’s not uncommon for labor cost percentage to vary within a franchise or a group.

We go a little more in depth on the ideal labor cost percentages for each restaurant concept in our blog post on controlling labor costs, but to save you a click, here are the average percentages, based on data from the accounting firm BDO:

  • Quick service: 29.4%
  • Fast casual: 28.9%
  • Casual: 33.2%
  • Upscale casual: 30.4%
  • Pizza: 31.3%

Notice that quick service and fast casual restaurants’ labor cost percentage is below 30%. This is because the business can usually get by with a dozen or fewer employees at their absolute busiest, and can serve multiple customers in a short period of time.

Sit-down and casual restaurants, however, tend to have a higher labor cost percentage, given the fact it takes you an hour to serve a guest rather than a few minutes. While higher ticket amounts can counter that model slightly, restaurateurs helming businesses with these concepts should prepare to budget more for wages and related labor costs.

Five Tips for Managing Labor Cost Percentage

Regardless of size, location, or concept of their business, here are some tips that all restaurateurs can try in their efforts to control labor cost percentage.

1. Avoid Overtime Pay Wherever Possible

We know: it’s a lot easier said than done.

Still, the fact remains that overtime can quickly eat away at your labor budget when it’s not closely monitored. Sure, situations arise when you need (or even want) a certain employee to work overtime, and some employees are eager to take these shifts to earn the extra pay.

Our challenge to you is to make yourself more aware of your overtime costs. Check your labor reports once a week or once a month specifically for overtime calculations to see how much you could be saving. Chances are, you’ll be able to move something around to cut some of these costs in the future.

2. Schedule Based on Sales Forecasts

There’s nothing quite like planning the perfect amount of staff for your shift. No one’s talent is being wasted, and no one is too swamped for their own good.

One of the best ways to reach this state is to schedule based off of sales forecasts—determining how much business you’ll do in a given shift based on similar shifts.

This task goes beyond your typical “Friday is our busiest night, so we’re sure to staff up.” Instead, look more closely at how sales change on holidays or seasonal events (graduations, half-days at your local school, etc.). Look into what hour it gets busy on Fridays, and arrange your schedule to reflect that demand. This more granular approach might take an investment of time, but it will pay you back with a lower labor cost percentage.  

3. Embrace the Split Shift

Some states and cities have regulations on split shifts that require you to compensate employees extra, but if you think it’s worth it for your business, try incorporating more of them in your scheduling process.

You get to relieve employees for a few hours, and while they’re running an errand or picking up their kids from school before the dinner shift, you’re saving significant labor hours over the course of the year.

4. Enforce Clock-In Accuracy

Prevent rounding errors in your pay stubs by mandating employees clock in within certain time windows. Otherwise, you’re allowing them to rack up extra pay for a shift they were never scheduled to work, and you might have to cover wages you hadn’t planned on paying. To circumvent these situations, use an employee scheduling software with auto-punch functionality.

5. Expand Your Order-Taking Opportunities

When calculated as a percentage of sales, restaurant labor cost percentage can decrease when you sell more food.

Some restaurants can feel constricted by their traditional sit-down or take-out dining options. However, there are a few ways to increase revenue during each shift without increasing labor costs.

One of them is expanding into online ordering on your own website. When you offer online ordering in-house, you speak to the rising demand of diners looking to place orders on their phones and computers, thus potentially increasing sales. This route allows you to retain more profit when compared to a third-party software, but also makes it more difficult to find new customers, since you’ll likely only get orders from those searching exclusively for your website.  

Another option is to work with third-party order taking sites and apps. These are apps and sites like GrubHub, UberEats, and DoorDash–which 3 in 10 millennials are using at least two times a week. Partnering with these businesses exposes your brand to new faces, increases the output from your kitchen, and doesn’t add a penny to your labor costs (since the delivery drivers work for the order-taking company).

In both of these scenarios, your sales go up, your labor costs stay the same, and mathematically, that means your labor cost percentage decreases each time you make a sale on one of these sites.

Five Bonus Tips for Managing Multi-Location Labor Cost Percentage

Larger restaurant groups have additional routes to a more manageable labor cost percentage. While the tips outlined above can be beneficial in all restaurants, these ones listed below are more applicable to franchises.

1. Brush Up on Fair Workweek Laws

If any of your restaurant locations are in a part of the country with fair workweek laws like New York City, San Francisco, or the state of Oregon, do your due diligence and refresh your memory. The laws laid out in these ordinances directly pertain to scheduling. Some mandatory tasks found in these ordinances can include:

  • Providing schedules 1-2 weeks in advance for employees.
  • Giving new hires a good faith estimate of what shifts and hours they will be expected to work regularly.
  • Offering a new shift opportunity to existing employees before hiring a new one to fill it.

Since a violation of any of these laws can result in a fine, the amount of money you spend on labor increases for each violation you’re found guilty of. Reduce the number of violations and you’ll be able to better control your labor cost percentage.

These laws apply only to restaurants in certain states and cities that are part of large groups and franchises, so catch up on which ones apply to you. You can learn more about how to stay compliant with labor laws with our new ebook, The Complete Labor Compliance Playbook for Restaurants.

2. Watch Out for Premium Pay

Building off the last point, certain restrictions outlined in fair workweek ordinances—such as requiring employees to work “clopens” or consent to last-minute shift changes—come with a premium pay fee to employees for their lost wages or restricted rest time.

These premiums range anywhere from $10 to $100, and even if your employees are consenting to these shift changes, those premiums can quickly rack up your labor cost percentage.

3. Develop Employee Retention/Incentive Programs

While high turnover is an unfortunate reality in restaurants, taking steps to reduce the turnover wherever possible can have a huge impact for your business.

For example, some estimates put the cost of recruiting and training a backfill for a lost employee at six to nine months’ pay for the role. In other words, if you lose your restaurant manager who earns $40,000 a year, you’re losing $20,000 - $30,000 in labor productivity.  

In addition to hiring based on your restaurant’s core values, use the resources of your restaurant group to develop programs and incentives for workers to stay longer. These could include:

  • Clear, documented paths for advancement in the company.
  • Tuition reimbursement for related courses and classes (an initiative recently expanded by Chipotle).
  • Competitive time off, vacation, benefits, and bonus programs.

Yes, these programs will cost your restaurant up front. However, if implemented correctly, they could enormously reduce your employee turnover costs.

4. Equip Your Restaurant with an Employee Scheduling Software

Multi-location restaurant groups and franchises should be set up with an employee scheduling and management software that can fit their needs and work across locations.

On a macro level, this universally-available data provides operations managers and business leaders with the raw data they need to understand how each location is impacting the company. On a micro level, this frees up store managers’ time, as time spent scheduling staff can decrease by 80%.

5. Compare Your Locations to the Company Average

One final task multi-location groups will have to take compared to their single-location counterparts is comparing labor cost percentages.

Compiling your group’s collective labor cost percentage is a necessary first step. From there, you’ll need to look at each of your locations to see if they’re helping or hurting that average.

For those that are below average, dig into previous reports to see if this is a one-time rough patch or a pattern of underperformance. If it’s the latter, work with the store owner and manager to get to the bottom of the problem and develop a plan to address whatever issues arise.

For those that are above average, take the time to understand what they’re doing right in their locations. Perhaps they have strategies and tactics that you can share with workers are other locations to better the company as a whole.

All that said, you might want to consider which consistent factors cause some locations to perform better or worse than others in your analysis.

Wrapping Up: Small Changes Make a Big Impact

Adopting these processes and small changes can have a drastic impact on your labor cost percentage. With more visibility into your real numbers and more control over your costs, you’ll be on your way to a healthier restaurant labor cost percentage without damaging sales, staff morale, or the guest experience.

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AJ Beltis
AJ Beltis

AJ Beltis is a freelance writer with almost a decade of experience in the restaurant industry. He currently works as a content specialist at HubSpot, and previously as a blogger at Toast.