Scraping clean the sides of mixing bowls and only offering bread and water when requested used to be the stuff of just a few penny-pinching foodservice operators. But in recent years more operators have been considering joining their ranks, searching for ways to squeeze the most out of every product they purchase.

Pushing many operators to take a micro-look at product usage is the rising cost of food. Average wholesale food prices have risen by double digits in the last half dozen years and remain elevated, according to recent research from the National Restaurant Association.

Fortunately, industry experts say there are a plethora of tactics operators can use to maximize their products and lower food, and sometimes labor, costs and reduce waste.

“A business can always be made more efficient,” says Aaron Allen, an Orlando, Fla.-based global restaurant consultant.

The first step toward making the most of products is a complete inventory review to see how all products are being used and how they might be used better. While that may seem overwhelming, Allen says it’s important to note that everything doesn’t have to be executed all at once. The below best practices offer options operators can tackle one at a time.

Go from the top down

Fast food, full-service or university dining, every foodservice establishment stocks hundreds of products in its inventory. While every one can be improved, they just can’t be improved all at once. Operators that try to tackle everything in one big bite end up making small changes that have no real impact, says Allen. Instead, he advises operators to focus on the top five SKUs first. Once those are maximized, then it’s time to move on to the next five, and so on.

Cross utilize

This is a simple concept that calls for finding multiple ways to use items across the menu. In fact, operations experts suggest that each item in the inventory have at least three uses. If not, perhaps it’s time to cut it. While having fewer items on the menu may sound limiting, successful cross-utilization can be a creativity booster, inspiring more innovative ways to use ingredients and differentiate a concept with unique product offerings. Cross-utilization has other benefits, too. Since an item is being used on multiple dishes it can be prepped and used immediately, thereby reducing waste and improving freshness.

Avocado is an example of a product that many operators currently are cross utilizing. The delicate green fruit now appears on nearly half of all restaurant menus, according to Datassential Insider. Major chains such as Subway, Denny’s and Longhorn Steakhouse all are using the trendy ingredient in multiple menu items.

Reinvent

Have a product that isn’t moving? While many operators choose to run the product out, donate it or toss it, Allen has another idea. “Take something that’s dead in the inventory and invent with it,” he advises. For example, transform a spirit that’s not moving into a specialty cocktail. Inventing something singular not only sells the underperforming item, but also creates a signature beverage for your operation.

Pay attention to the pack

Operators have long lamented having even the smallest leftover product in cans, jars and jugs, but many just didn’t have a solution to save it. “Our best trick is to formulate to pack sizes,” says Stephen Goldmann, a consultant with the San Francisco-based firm The Culinary Edge. “Use a No. 10 can of tomatoes, for example. Nice round numbers that have a clear relationship to the pack is very efficient and pays off tremendously.”

Additionally, operators can ask their vendors about purchasing packs that better fit their menu needs. Many manufacturers have developed innovative package solutions that ensure more of the product is used, as well as make products easier to manipulate in the kitchen and more streamlined for storage.

Buy in bulk

Major chains and large foodservice operators have long understood the significant savings of buying in bulk. While small chains and independent operators previously lacked the necessary resources to take advantage of this practice, the recent rise of cooperative buying groups has enabled these smaller players to join the mega chain’s club and reap the savings.

“[Buying in bulk] is critical to independents being successful and will be even more so in the future,” says Joseph J. Tegtmeier, owner of Buy Right Purchasing Group in Madison, Wis. Tegtemeier says that Buy Right, which operates like a purchasing department at a national chain for independent operators, typically saves its small clients between $8,000 and $10,000 a year and larger clients as much as $60,000.

Whatever the approach, Allen and Goldmann agree that operators shouldn't get so caught up in saving that they forget about quality or guest experience.

“We are constantly making sure any effort our labor puts in is driving value for guests,” Goldmann says. “Any efficiency must also improve, not detract, from the experience.”