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Updated Feb 21, 2023

Restaurant Accounting: How It’s Different

Restaurants have their own special accounting needs and quirks. Here's a look at what sets restaurant accounting apart.

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Dock Treece, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
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You might think accounting is the same across the board, but it can differ quite a bit from industry to industry.

So what sets restaurant accounting apart? On the surface, it’s not all that different from standard accounting practices. Restaurant accounting uses many of the same costing methods, profit-and-loss statements, and cash flow reports as other industries. 

However, just as a restaurant comes with its own expenses and unique restaurant equipment, restaurant accounting has its nuances. Here are the main things you need to know. 

TipBottom line
The easiest way for a restaurant to maintain its books is to use one of the best business accounting software solutions.

Accounting methods

Like other industries, restaurants can use cash or accrual methods to do their accounting, though there are subtle differences in how those methods apply. Generally, restaurants that generate less than $1 million per year in revenue can choose either method, but those that generate more than $1 million must use the accrual method. Here’s a look at each accounting method and how a chart of accounts comes into play.

Editor’s note: Looking for the right accounting software for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

Cash method

The cash method is the most common accounting method for restaurants because customers pay for their food and services rendered right away. That means they don’t owe you money later (as customers might with a construction project). This also means restaurants probably won’t have an accounts receivable balance. 

With the cash method of accounting, activities are recorded when payment is received. While this might be the easiest method for restaurants, it’s not necessarily the most accurate.

Accrual method

The accrual method, on the other hand, records transactions as they happen, regardless of when payment occurs. This allows for a different activity analysis, showing a more accurate perspective of how expenses are incurred, how income is generated, and how income compares to expenses.

Chart of accounts

A chart of accounts is a list of all the financial accounts a company uses in its internal accounting. It includes a brief description of each account, notes about each account’s type, and account balance summaries. 

Managers use a chart of accounts to summarize all the financial accounts that pertain to the business. They glean information about each account’s status when tracking and reporting company finances.

Did You Know?Did you know
A chart of accounts can be tailored to a company's unique specifications, but it's important to keep it the same from year to year so you can accurately gauge your business's finances.


Of course, in the restaurant industry, you’ll need to factor in tips along with the standard tax considerations for employees. Tips (not including automatic gratuities, which work differently) are considered employee income, not restaurant income, and are not subject to withholding.

However, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to consider them in your accounting process. Employees at your restaurant are still required to report tips to you, and both you and your employees are required to pay taxes on them – you just don’t need to report them as part of your restaurant revenue.

Accounting periods

Since the day of the week tends to affect restaurant business (for example, a Friday night might bring in more customers, thus making you more money than a quiet Tuesday), it’s useful to employ a four-week accounting period instead of a monthly accounting period, according to Orderly, a leading food-cost management solution.

A four-week accounting period would look at four weeks at a time, each starting on a Monday and ending on a Sunday. That way, you can combine time periods from year to year. With a monthly accounting period, on the other hand, July of last year and July of this year would have a different number of Fridays and Saturdays. This wouldn’t be a big deal in other industries, but it’s essential to note in the restaurant business.

Types of restaurant expenses

Like any business, restaurants will have both fixed and variable expenses. Fixed expenses include costs of operation like rent, utilities, insurance, loan payments, and salaried employees.

Variable expenses are more difficult to budget because they change frequently. Hourly wages for employees and food costs are the most significant variable expenses. Profits will fluctuate, so it’s crucial to use percentages instead of a fixed dollar amount.

Your labor and food costs will be higher if you have a busy week and sales are $10,000, versus a slow week when sales are $5,000. Keep labor and food costs each at 30% of sales to stay profitable.

Here’s a look at the most common types of restaurant expenses.

Inventory management

While other businesses, such as retail stores, might not need to take stock of their inventory on a frequent basis (many businesses can get away with doing so monthly, quarterly, or even once a year), weekly inventory management is critical for restaurants. Why? Because restaurant inventory is food, much of which is perishable and will spoil in less than a month.

FYIDid you know
As with inventory, some businesses might create profit-and-loss statements on a monthly or quarterly basis. Weekly profit-and-loss statements are smart for restaurants because they help manage inventory. Cash flow reports should also be more frequent for the same reason.

Cost of goods sold

The cost of goods sold (COGS) is also an essential part of inventory management. The cost of goods sold equals the direct costs that a company pays to acquire the materials needed to create what it’s selling. In a restaurant setting, this would be the amount paid each month for ingredients used to prepare items on the restaurant’s menu.

Lowering COGS is an excellent way to increase profits. Start with categorizing your items – for example, meats, dairy, and fruits. You can then set a cost percentage for each group, which makes it easier to manage.

It’s also important to minimize waste. Measure ingredients carefully, and ensure that all employees do the same. If a recipe calls for one-quarter cup of cheese, but a half-cup is consistently used instead, that would double your cost for cheese. Those expenditures add up to a significant impact.

Prime cost

The prime cost is the combined cost of food and ingredients in addition to labor expenses. If managed properly, most restaurants can tell how much of their supply costs can be allocated to specific activities (such as catering) or menu items. Many can also tell how much of their labor costs are attributable to specific items or based on relative prep times.

The big difference with prime cost is that it doesn’t include outside costs, such as advertising, manager salaries, and rent.

If a restaurant owner calculates and tracks prime cost (direct material cost plus direct labor cost), over time, they’ll gain deeper insights into the factors that are most affecting their costs. That will help them come up with cost-saving steps to improve the restaurant’s profit margins.

Important restaurant ratios

Some ratios are more relevant to the restaurant industry than others. These include the ratio of food and beverage to expenses and the revenue per seat.

A food and beverage expenses-to-sales ratio tells you how much profit you’re making from a specific menu item. Take the cost of t

he ingredients needed to make the dish one time and divide it by the menu cost of the item. The food cost should be 30% or less.

Some items will provide you with a lower food cost-to-profit ratio than others. Once you identify these items, consider promoting them or offering them as suggestive sales.

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For more information on restaurant accounting, check out our in-depth accounting software guide, which can also help you choose restaurant-specific accounting software.

Revenue per seat is calculated by dividing the revenue from a given day by the number of seats. This can be helpful when considering renovation or downsizing. If revenue per seat is lower on certain days or periods, consider closing an area of the restaurant to decrease the available seating in these periods. That can result in significant savings on staff and utilities.

If you’re often filled to capacity, however, you’ll have a high revenue per seat. In that case, you might benefit from offering more seating to make room for additional customers.

author image
Dock Treece, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
Dock David Treece is a respected finance expert known for his thorough exploration of business financial matters, with a focus on Small Business Administration (SBA) loans and alternative lending. He currently serves as the senior vice president of marketing at BNY Mellon, having previously held the role of editorial manager at Dotdash. Drawing from over 17 years of experience, Treece has worn various hats, including financial advisor, registered investment advisor and a key position on the FINRA Small Firm Advisory Board. In addition to his corporate roles, Treece's entrepreneurial background adds depth to his understanding of the challenges and opportunities small business owners face. As a co-founder and manager of a small business, he offers firsthand insights into the tools and tactics necessary for success in the ever-changing entrepreneurial landscape.
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