Restaurant accounting is a business function that’s absolutely critical to get right.

In an industry of thin margins and high-volume transactions, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that consistent and accurate accounting can be the difference between sustained, efficient growth and spiraling decline.

This guide exists to give restaurant business owners a strategic overview of how to do restaurant accounting well. We’ll answer questions like:

Our focus will be on high-level, strategic accounting information (as opposed to the tactical facilitation of, say, accounts payable processing), with an eye toward helping restaurant owners make good accounting choices. In other words, this isn’t a guide to help you do accounting yourself. It’s a guide to help you understand what good accounting is so that you can implement the systems that will make it happen.

Ready? Let’s get started.


What is restaurant accounting?

At a general level, accounting involves (as the word suggests) taking account of business transactions. Investopedia concisely defines it as “the process of recording financial transactions pertaining to a business.”

With that in mind, here are a few additional points to know to give you a fuller conception of the term.

The purpose of accounting.

At a high level, accounting’s purpose is to keep track of financial data. Without accounting, there would be no way to measure income, expenses, or profits. Good accounting keeps data accessible and accurate, allowing business owners the ability to make good decisions that improve profits.

The activities involved in accounting.

At a more granular level, accounting involves summarizing, analyzing, and reporting transactions to oversight agencies, regulators, and tax collection entities. This involves services like accounts payable processing, accounts receivable processing, bank reconciliation, tax processing, the production of financial statements, and more.

In other words, not only do accounting functions keep track of data, they also help to facilitate passage of that data to the correct entities. They ensure that transactions can continue flowing smoothly so that the business can keep running.

Learn more about what’s involved in restaurant accounting here.

The difference between accounting and bookkeeping.

One last point here: semantically, there’s some confusion between the terms accounting and bookkeeping.

While both activities could fall under our above definition of accounting, in common usage, bookkeeping means record-keeping, while accounting typically means record-keeping plus summarization, analysis, and communication. A bookkeeper might keep QuickBooks updated; an accountant might help you to create financial statements or process your taxes.

Learn more about the difference between restaurant accounting and restaurant bookkeeping here.


What are common terms in restaurant accounting?

restaurant accounting terms

Accounting, like any other discipline, has its own language, replete with ideas, terms, and acronyms that you’ll need to understand if you hope to monitor the activities they represent. And restaurant businesses have jargon of their own, too.

So, to begin, we’ll define a few key terms at the overlap between restaurant businesses and accounting. Many of these terms apply to franchise restaurant accounting, but many apply more generally to any restaurant business, as well. Most of these terms are, admittedly, basic, but they’re foundational to understanding what restaurant accounting is.

Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)

In the United States, restaurant accounting is required to adhere to GAAP, which, as defined at Investopedia, represents “a common set of accounting principles, standards, and procedures issued by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB).”

GAAP exists to provide consistency and comparability in financial information. These standards are occasionally updated as things change; in May 2014, for example, new revenue recognition guidance was put into place that replaced pre-existing standards, with full changes taking effect at the end of 2019 for non-public entities.

Franchisor

The franchisor is the entity that owns the brand assets being franchised. So, McDonald’s, for example, is a franchisor.

Typically, a franchisor offers support like:

  • Operating systems and processes
  • Brand and marketing investments
  • Employee training

To access these benefits (and to operate under the franchise brand name), franchisees pay a fee.

Franchisee

The franchisee is the entity that purchases the rights to operate a business under the franchisor’s brand. In other words, they’re the business that owns and operates 100 Taco Bells in the Midwest. It’s important to note that when we refer to “franchise accounting,” we’re typically talking about accounting for franchisees’ businesses.

Initial Fees

Virtually any franchise agreement includes an initial fee that gives the franchisee the right to operate under the franchisor’s brand. This typically includes conditions around name, trademark, and operating systems. Additionally, the initial fees may also pay for equipment, construction, or renovations that enable opening a franchise location.

Amortization

Amortization periodically lowers the book value of an intangible asset over a period of time. We’ve included the term here because it’s common practice for franchisees to amortize the initial fees associated with franchise startup. A common franchise amortization term is 15 years.

Royalty Fees

In addition to initial fees, franchisees are typically required to pay ongoing royalty fees, as well. These vary across different franchises, but typically the fee is a percentage of gross sales.

Marketing Fees

Many franchises also charge franchisees marketing fees, which power the marketing budget for the brand as a whole and presumably benefit franchisees in the process.

COGS

All right: our first technical accounting term. COGS stands for cost of goods sold, and it essentially refers to how much products cost to make. From Investopedia again: “This amount includes the cost of the materials and labor directly used to create the good. It excludes indirect expenses, such as distribution costs and [equipment] costs.”

In accounting for restaurants, COGS refers only to the ingredients that make up the items on the menu.

Prime Cost

Prime Cost refers to COGS plus labor costs. For restaurant businesses, this is a crucial accounting metric.

Revenue

Hopefully you know what revenue is – it’s the amount of sales brought in (as opposed to profit, which is revenue minus expenses). It’s basic. If this definition comes as a surprise, you will probably have business problems that this page can’t solve. That said, it’s also critical, and if your accounting is in disarray, it can be surprisingly hard to measure accurately over certain periods of time.

Earnings Before Income Tax, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA)

EBITDA is a helpful measure of overall restaurant business performance that’s sometimes used as an alternative to net income or simple earnings.

The measure is fairly self-explanatory; it’s simply the amount of earnings before income tax, depreciation, and amortization. Its purpose is to offer a picture of performance that isn’t obscured by those expenses.

Total Sales Per Head

Total sales per head (or revenue per employee) is a helpful metric for showing how efficiently your restaurant business is using employees. Again, the calculation is revealed in the name of the term: to find total sales per head, take total sales over a given period and divide it by the total number of employees.

Because labor represents such a large cost in restaurant operations, tracking efficiency in this way can inform your decision-making.

We cover 15 critical restaurant accounting terms in a bit more depth here.


What makes restaurant accounting unique?

restaurant accounting unique

Okay, we’ve defined some common terms for restaurant accounting. Now, let’s go a step further: why do they matter? What makes accounting for restaurants any different from accounting in other industries?

There are a variety of factors that make restaurant accounting a unique endeavor. Here are three of the biggest.

Restaurants operate within 4-week accounting periods.

The main distinction in restaurant accounting is the industry’s four-week accounting period. Most other industries use a month-long accounting period, meaning that transactions are grouped by, reported on by, and analyzed by month. This makes annual reports straightforward as there are 12 months to analyze.

Restaurants, though, have transactional trends that are closely correlated to the days of the week. Fridays and Saturdays, for example, are nearly always the busiest restaurant days. This makes month-by-month reporting less helpful – a month with more weekends will always look better than a month with fewer weekends, making data more difficult to decipher.

As a consequence, restaurants prefer to use 4-week accounting periods, meaning that annual reports account for 13 periods (as there are 52 weeks in a year). It’s a simple difference, but this reformatting impacts every other facet of the accounting process.

Restaurants deal with high-volume purchases, often across many locations.

Additionally, the restaurant business model is contingent on high-volume purchases across many locations. That’s a unique challenge; it means that there’s a lot of data that has to be sorted and a lot of places where accounting can go wrong. Additionally, restaurant business operations commonly involve the creation of multiple LLCs, which can compound the complexity of accounting.

Restaurant businesses operate on thin margins.

Finally, restaurant businesses typically operate on thin margins. Successful restaurant businesses capitalize on economies of scale to make things work (especially those that aren’t the most upscale, high-price-point models). When you’re selling a meal for less than $50 and you have to account for the costs of inventory and labor, you’ve got to sell a lot of meals to make a good profit. This means that optimizing every aspect and process of a restaurant business is absolutely crucial.

Accounting for restaurants provides a way to measure and improve efficiency.


What activities does restaurant accounting typically include?

restaurant accounting activities

There is an array of activities that fall under the umbrella of “restaurant accounting.” Some of the most common include:

Depending on the context, certain high-level, strategic activities may be included within the term “restaurant accounting” as well (like CFO services, for example). Typically, though, accounting for restaurants deals with tactical activities like the ones listed above.


What’s the best accounting software for restaurants?

restaurant accounting software

We’ve looked at the activities included in restaurant accounting. Now, let’s look at some of the software options that empower those activities.

There are a variety of options on the market. Many are general platforms that can be purposed for restaurant accounting, but some are tailored to the restaurant business environment specifically. Options include platforms like:

Quickbooks

This is the most ubiquitous accounting software for a reason: it’s robust and it can be used across a wide variety of industries, including within the restaurant industry. Its drawback is that it’s general software; it’s not built specifically for the restaurant environment. It’s not, for instance, set up to deal with 13-period reporting over 4-week spans or built to easily handle multiple LLCs. There are work-arounds (usually through third-party integrations), but these can become tenuous, especially at scale. That said, it offers an impressive array of features – one of which (payroll), is illustrated in the following video.

TouchBistro

TouchBistro, on the other hand, isn’t technically an accounting software; it’s a POS system that derives most of its accounting functionality from integrations. So why are we including it here? Well, the reality is that many restaurants rely on overlapping, complex integrations of myriad systems. TouchBistro is a prime example of a platform with crossover functionality. At the end of the day, while it’s not designed for accounting, it plays a vital role in accounting for the organizations that use it. Built for iPads, it’s made for ease of use in the restaurant environment.

Functions include: inventory management, payroll and tip tracking, and even employee time tracking. These data points are crucial for accurate accounting. TouchBistro does generate some basic accounting reports, but much of the heavy lifting is done by third parties (like Quickbooks) as data is passed through.

Restaurant365

Quickbooks is a general accounting solution that can be applied to a restaurant context, while solutions like TouchBistro are restaurant-specific but not designed for robust accounting. In our view, the best restaurant accounting software is Restaurant365 because it’s built for both; it’s operationally comprehensive (it can manage all back-office functions) and it’s designed specifically for the restaurant context.

Restaurant365 is cloud-based, easily integrable, and, best of all, built to make restaurant accounting easier. Unlike Quickbooks, it’s built with the food and beverage industry in mind. It’s geared toward 4-week / 13-period reporting, it’s equipped to handle multiple LLCs, and it provides a centralized system for data across functions (kitchen, POS, payroll) that makes restaurant accounting seamless, especially at scale.

We’ve written about the Restaurant365 solution in more depth here. The bottom line is that it should be strongly considered as you evaluate accounting software for your restaurant.

Sage Intacct

Sage Intacct is another industry leader. The solution’s powerful automation of complex processes and multi-dimensional data analysis provide most of the financial foundation that restaurant businesses need. Capabilities include processing accounts payable, accounts receivable, cash management, the general ledger, purchasing, and more.

Like QuickBooks’ online option, Sage Intacct is built on a true cloud system that allows account access from anywhere with internet. And, like QuickBooks, the platform’s main drawback is that it’s not built for the restaurant industry specifically. It’s robust feature set, though, makes it worth considering.

Global Shared Solutions is experienced in customizing Sage Intacct for restaurants to pull the reports and real-time dashboard data they need.  Since this is a powerful and popular tool, GSS is also a Sage Intacct partner.

Bill.com

Bill.com is a bit different from the platforms we’ve discussed so far in that it’s primarily focused on helping business owners to create and send bills, send invoices, and get paid. It’s not a comprehensive accounting software, but the data it processes does support restaurant accounting functions.

At a basic level, it helps to streamline accounts receivable and accounts payable.

It’s worth noting that Bill.com is built for easy integration with several of the other accounting software options on this list, including Sage Intacct, QuickBooks, Oracle NetSuite, and Xero.

Here at GSS, we’re a Bill.com partner and are equipped with the technical knowledge and experience to configure the Bill.com integrations restaurants need for their AR and AP.

To read our analysis of more restaurant accounting software options, view this article.


What issues do restaurants face in accounting?

restaurant accounting issues

Regardless of the software that a restaurant business chooses, there are also additional questions and issues involved in the accounting function. Here are a few of the most common.

Should the business choose an outsourced or internal accounting solutionIn other words, how should the restaurant business structure its accounting function? Internal resources are dedicated to the business and immersed in the environment, but tend to be more costly and less efficient. Outsourced solutions tend to be more efficient, but some businesses are wary of communication concerns or feel obligated to retain current employees.

It’s also common to use hybrid solutions, where outsourced accounting complements internal resources.

How can the restaurant business avoid data silos and generate accurate data? Dependable accounting requires dependable data. One of the biggest issues for restaurant accounting is managing data so that it’s delivered reliably and comprehensively to accounting personnel.

Choosing a comprehensive software like Restaurant365 can help with this, as there’s a central repository for data – this is an improvement over using different platforms for different functions. But if employees aren’t trained in the software and use it incorrectly, data can still be insufficient. Good software and steady compliance across the company are needed.

How should the business scale accounting as the company grows? This is a longer-term issue, but it’s worth considering, especially for growth-minded restaurant business owners. As more locations are opened, will the accounting solution be outsourced? Will internal personnel be able to handle the additional workload?

Restaurant Accounting Mistakes

The questions listed above are crucial to consider – and, as you answer them, be sure to avoid the issues associated with common restaurant accounting mistakes.

These include:

Not using a four-week accounting period.

As noted above, most businesses use a monthly accounting period and end up with 12 periods in a year in which data is compiled and reported on. For restaurants, though, monthly reports can be misleading. Because weekends tend to get more traffic than weekdays, months with extra weekends look great, while months with fewer weekends look worse – regardless of how the business is performing relative to daily expectations.

Restaurant accounting should use a four-week period and avoid this mistake.

Using a cash basis instead of an accrual basis.

Another big mistake in restaurant accounting is to use a cash basis. This approach means recording each transaction when the cash comes in or goes out.

It’s straightforward, but it doesn’t allow good visibility into upcoming income or expenses – and, again, that can impact your ability to make good decisions. Really, the only businesses that should use a cash basis for accounting are very small businesses with no inventory. Clearly, that doesn’t include restaurants.

An accrual basis is a better approach. This involves recording each transaction when a liability is induced or when income is earned. So, if a business orders repairs in a given month, that liability is noted immediately in that month, even if it’s paid thirty days later.

This allows income and expenses to be matched to the time periods in which they actually occur, and also gives visibility into upcoming cash flows.

Not monitoring inventory on a weekly basis.

Inventory is the pulse of a restaurant. Reviewing this on a monthly basis simply isn’t enough to ensure that you’re making the right decisions. If you don’t monitor and maintain your inventory each week, you risk missing crucial beats – you could end up overstocked with food that spoils, or understocked and unable to meet customer demand.

Both are bad scenarios.

Additionally, inventory is the key driver in calculating the Cost of Goods Sold (COGS), which is, as we’ve written about elsewhere, one of the key restaurant accounting terms to track. Be consistent in inventory management. Your kitchen staff will thank you.

Learn other common restaurant accounting mistakes (and how to avoid them) here.


Can restaurant accounting improve profitability?

restaurant accounting profitability

We’ve discussed common issues that arise in restaurant accounting. Now, let’s cover the biggest benefit to the activity; the answer to the question posed in the preceding title is an emphatic “yes.”

Actually, that’s the end goal for restaurant accounting: to provide a clear picture of financial metrics so that businesses can optimize processes for increased profit.

The means toward that end are fairly straightforward. Good restaurant accounting shows financial metrics accurately. Once stakeholders have access to accurate data, they can make more accurate decisions. For example, restaurant accounting might report payroll costs at unnecessarily high levels. Staffing would be adjusted accordingly to improve margins. Or the balance sheet might show a high number of accounts receivable, necessitating action to collect on those accounts.


Is outsourced accounting for restaurants a viable solution?

outsource restaurant accounting

Outsourced accounting for restaurants can certainly be a viable solution.

First, it’s cost-efficient and can be a strategic advantage. A few of the benefits include:

  1. Additional time for critical personnel. In a scenario where the business owner was processing some of the accounting activities personally, there’s an obvious benefit to removing those responsibilities from their already-overloaded plate. Outsourcing accounting allows these individuals to reclaim some of the hours in the day and rededicate them toward areas of higher impact – perhaps freeing them to work on ensuring process optimization or giving them the time to plan for new locations. The same is true for internal accounting resources.
  2. Access to financial expertise. One of our core beliefs is that businesses with access to financial expertise are far more likely to succeed. Outsourced accounting allows restaurant businesses to tap into expertise that’s been developed across similar organizations. An outsourced provider has served other restaurant businesses and can bring insight from that background to bear to make processes run more efficiently.
  3. Scalability. Internal accounting departments typically require one person per six restaurant locations, while optimized outsourced teams can serve twelve locations at a cost that’s lower than a single internal hire. Let’s say your business is planning to open 10 new locations in three years; it’s much easier to do that with an outsourced accounting solution than it is to grow an internal team over that time span.

Additionally, the best outsourced accounting solutions negate many of the concerns that business owners associate with outsourced providers:

  • Good outsourced solutions communicate well. We ensure, for example, a dedicated point of contact for each account who often spends face-to-face time in ensuring client needs are met.
  • Good outsourced solutions can complement the capabilities of internal teams. Internal and external solutions don’t have to be mutually exclusive, especially when you work with an outsourced provider that has experience in tailoring solutions to the restaurant environment.

Learn about when it makes sense to outsource restaurant accounting here.


What’s it like working with an outsourced accounting provider?

restaurant accounting provider

As we’ve seen, choosing outsourced accounting for a restaurant business can provide notable benefits. So, how does it work?

At a tactical level, here’s what’s involved.

Transition

This is the phase that most businesses often dread, but it’s also the catalyst to financial stability and improved performance. We typically begin engagements assuming a 30-day transitional period.

Here’s what the transitional period entails:

  • We put together a checklist of items and activities that need to be transitioned. This may mean processing data or addressing security factors. It may also mean identifying and remedying historical issues – a pending sales tax audit, substandard accounts payable practices, etc.
  • We gather information to create a calendar schedule for deliverables – vendor payments, payroll processing, required statements, bank reconciliations, etc. – to plan appropriate processes.
  • We follow the schedule and begin to build the financial infrastructure that will enable consistency and future optimization.
  • We hold regular status calls to monitor progress. The frequency of these may vary depending on client preference, but our goals are to ensure understanding of new processes and to quickly identify and remedy any speed bumps.

Maintenance

During this phase, processes begin to develop a consistent rhythm. This allows for a steady accumulation of data that will ultimately pave the way toward better insight and growth.

This period entails:

  • The continual processing of included services.
  • The generation of valuable reports from accumulated data – cash flow performance, etc.

Performance

The final phase of our engagements capitalizes on sound foundational accounting processes to position businesses for growth.

When our clients reach this phase, they’re no longer held hostage by chaotic financial situations. Instead, they’re free to view all of their data in order to make better business decisions – and we help to guide them as they do so.

This period entails:

  • The continual presentation of impactful data. With the basics taken care of, we can present more data more consistently.
  • Business process optimization. Thanks to a clearer financial picture, businesses are often able to identify areas where optimization could produce growth. During the performance phase, we help to point these areas out and work with businesses to improve them, sometimes in a CFO capacity.
  • Increased transparency in finance and accounting processes. We take the time to build transparency into our engagements by producing trial balances and reconciliations that could be picked up and applied by anyone. This enhances freedom and eliminates the possibility of an accounting black box.

The Outcome

Here’s what a functional engagement looks like:

The business owner has a full understanding of financial data. On a monthly basis, all services are processed consistently and accurately like clockwork, and relevant parties can access financial documents as they’re posted via a secure portal from anywhere with internet access.

Communication over processes is fast and easy. A quick email or call to a dedicated point of contact can clarify information as needed.

And, best of all, the business’ financial functions are aligned with its goals – making meeting objectives much easier and unlocking the ability to scale in a way that previous solutions never could.

We’ve written about the process of outsourced accounting in more detail here.


Want to Learn What Outsourced Restaurant Accounting Could Look Like for Your Business?

Hopefully, this page has been helpful as you consider what good accounting for a restaurant business should look like.

If increased efficiency and full clarity into financial data sound appealing, let’s talk.

At Global Shared Services, we provide restaurants with outsourced accounting and financial services that are priced below the market and perform above it. Get in touch with us today to take the first step in empowering your restaurant business with better accounting.

You should have access to experts.

Founded in 2003, we’ve worked with large corporations and small-to-medium businesses alike. Here’s what we’ve learned: access to expert financial and accounting services is a major factor in a business’ ability to succeed and scale. We believe that it shouldn’t be restricted by location or company size. Our mission is to empower restaurants and technology firms with that access.
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With GSS, we meet our franchisor requirements on time and with accuracy. The local CPA could not handle our volume. We are so happy to have made the change. GSS knows our business and our franchisor requirements. Multi-unit fast sandwich Owner