There are few issues a restaurant operator will lose sleep over. We put out fires all day: shorted turkey on Thanksgiving, in the weeds so deep you can jump rope with the ticket string, dishwasher breaks on a Saturday night. And we always adapt and move on.

But in a world with rising labor and food costs, labor is a make-it or break-it item—an expense great enough to induce those restless nights and a reason why so many restaurants end up closing their doors. So, until pizza-topping, floor-mopping robots become even remotely affordable, here are a few labor hacks to help you drive your labor costs down and get some much-deserved shut-eye.

1. Understand Actual vs. Scheduled Labor

One of the most important labor metrics to analyze is “actual vs scheduled” labor, or AvS. This is the variance between what you scheduled in hours and dollars, and what actually happened. If your weekly sales projection is realistic, all you need to do is run your schedule and you’ll hit your projected labor target, right? Yes, but there’s a lot that goes into making sure that happens.

Analyzing AvS is a first-step approach to determine where you need to get your hands dirty. Tracking it daily will give you better clarity on what adjustments you need to make for the rest of the week. However you choose to calculate it (whether it’s using a labor management system or the old-fashioned way), remember the goal: measure the variance, identify what’s causing it and eliminate it. Subtract your actual labor dollars and hours by department (i.e. server, busser, pantry cook) from the projected/scheduled dollars and hours.

How to calculate AvS:

This calculation can be performed for any level: department (i.e. front of house or back of house), job/role (i.e. server, bartender, cook) or individual employee and for any period (i.e. shift, day, week or month). Note: be sure to include overtime in your calculation.

Actual vs Scheduled Money

Actual vs Scheduled Hours

If you’re missing your projected labor target but your sales projection is dead on, you have one or both of the following problems:

  1. your schedule is unrealistic (staff work longer than scheduled to meet demands of the business) or
  2. staff are unnecessarily working longer than scheduled, and leaders are allowing it to happen.

Identifying which problem(s) you have will determine the action plan. Read on for material ways to help.

2. Pocket the Player’s Card

When it comes to running your schedule, one of the most effective practices out there is also the simplest. Make it a requirement that all managers carry a paper copy of that day’s schedule (aka player’s card) in their pockets. This should be referred to constantly, monitoring in and out-times to shrink the AvS variance. It’s important that your managers take comprehensive notes on the player’s card and communicate any recommended changes at your weekly manager meetings. The goal is to capture as much detailed feedback during the shift as possible, then make meaningful schedule changes that will save money and increase productivity without sacrificing the guest experience.

3. For Whom the Bell Curves

Labor cost goes down. Have you ever tried using a bell curve to track productivity and pitfalls? Charting the relationship of your guest counts to employee counts by hour will show you where you’re losing money. If you chart any given shift, the number of employees and the number of guests should closely follow the same bell curve, indicating your labor is optimized.

The bell curve can be created manually by using figures from your point-of-sale system, or by using an integrated labor and scheduling management system that will do it for you. The common opportunities typically lie in the pre- and post-rush hours—the number of employees doesn’t flex with the number of guests. This will expose the dayparts that need some serious scheduling changes, or have productivity issues. The goal is to pinpoint when your problem is occurring so you can address it head on.

The people who do nothing when there’s plenty to do are the same people who are masters at looking busy when you don’t really need them. Use the bell curve and player’s card together to find them and get them off your clock!

For more on restaurant labor hacks, check out this video.