No research has shown COVID-19 is transmitted through food, and the risk of the virus being transmitted on food packaging is quite low. However, some customers may still hesitate to have even distant contact with a restaurant employee or delivery worker at the moment, particularly if they are part of a vulnerable population. Offering menu items in bulk can help minimize personal contact while still attracting business (and controlling costs). Are there items you can offer that can be prepared and sold in large batches, then popped into a customer’s freezer to be enjoyed at various points in the coming weeks? Think baked ziti, lasagna, soups, stews, chili and even comforting treats like cookies and pies.
As quarantines have altered people’s comings and goings, as well as the distribution of garbage and recycling in some places, pests are coming out of hiding. In Seattle, rats have been seen wrestling in public parks. A recent National Geographic report said that in New York City, rats are normally able to live out their lives within 150 feet of where they were born because of the plentiful food sources around them, but that’s no longer the case. They are boldly looking for food indoors, where they can not only spread disease but also chew and damage electrical wiring. In your restaurant, take extra care to minimize entry points for rats, mice and other pests right now. Avoid keeping doors open, even though it helps your staff avoid touching those surfaces. Seal any gaps under doors, since even a quarter-inch gap can give a mouse an entry point into your facility. Ensure trash containers – indoors and out – are sealed and cleaned regularly.
Through April 30, the National Restaurant Association is offering its ServSafe food safety training and certification program, as well as its Food Handler training program, for free. The modules also include video training on safe takeout and delivery practices. If your employees take part in the trainings, share their participation in your social media outreach to customers. While foodservice operators are used to having to take food safety precautions, the extra actions you are taking now to protect health and safety have likely never been more important to the public.
To avoid the spread of the coronavirus, not to mention seasonal flu, restaurants and other facilities where people congregate are raising their game when it comes to regularly disinfecting the surfaces where germs can lurk and be easily transferred. Beyond the long list of items such as table surfaces, seating areas, food preparation areas and trash containers that are a regular part of your cleaning routine, remember small-surface-area items like light switches, keypads and door push plates that can harbor harmful bacteria. Don’t neglect to clean and sanitize handles throughout your facility too – such as those on toilets, sinks, doors, food and ice scoops and appliances – as well as push plates on soap, paper towel and beverage dispensers. Be sure to use sanitizers at the proper temperature, concentration and for the proper length of time to ensure their effectiveness. The health technology company Ecolab provides industry-specific checklists that remind operators of the surfaces they need to clean and sanitize regularly – or contact Team Four for help in fine-tuning your cleaning and sanitation practices.
Amid increasing calls for people to stay home right now, restaurants have to make it clear to customers that they provide safe takeout and/or delivery – and with far fewer interactions than are common at grocery stores. First take stock of how you are keeping your operation and employees safe at the moment, including wearing gloves and masks, disinfecting your POS terminals between customers, offering curbside pickup and taking care to keep your delivery packaging free from contaminants. Transition to accepting only mobile/card payment and if you have an app, add a contactless option that allows pre-payment and enables customers to provide directions for a contactless drop-off. Then make your new protocol clear on your website and social media accounts. Consider posting a short video that takes viewers through the process of getting a takeout or delivery order from you right now. When people are deciding if and where to order restaurant food, it can make a difference.
At a time when consumers are operating out of fear of how coronavirus spreads, the safety of restaurant food can be a comfort – or at least not a concern. It’s also something you can relay to the public and to your employees. For instance, recent research has found that unlike bacteria that causes foodborne illness, the coronavirus does not multiply on foods and can only survive for limited periods on different surfaces. Researchers from the New England Journal of Medicine reported on March 17 that while the virus remained on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for 24 hours, the virus degrades quickly – and the presence of the virus does not mean there are sufficient viable particles present to cause infection. The researchers also said they did not find that food or food packaging was a source of transmission. Consumer Reports advises that consumers can further reduce their risk by washing their hands when they get home, setting down any packages on surfaces that can be cleaned, transferring meals to plates instead of consuming food out of takeout containers, and washing hands again prior to eating.
If you’re open for business right now, you can take some extra steps to keep your workplace and team safe. First, at a time when bad news is rampant and often unreliable, take your cues from the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization or local authorities on the state of COVID-19 containment in your area. Direct your staff based on those reports to ensure you make decisions using accurate, up-to-date information. Then trace the path of your team each day and identify actions you can take to protect people: Does your team use public transport to reach you? How can you help them protect their safety en route? Can you update your cleaning protocol to ensure your team has clean hands when they enter your facility? How can you ensure physical distancing in your kitchen? What technology tools at your disposal could enable some people to complete tasks from home? If a team member becomes ill, what is your back-up plan? Down the line, it is likely that we’ll have to manage either new mutations of the coronavirus or new virus outbreaks. Preparing now may help sustain your business.
To date, there have been no reports of COVID-19 being spread via food or food packaging. The main risks of contracting the illness are related to being around people who are infected and then contracting the virus through the respiratory tract – not the gastrointestinal tract. However, you can take steps to demonstrate to takeout and delivery customers that you are doing all you can to prevent the spread of the virus. A new report from the North Carolina State University says take-out and drive-thru food options are a good choice for high-risk groups because they minimize touch points and help maintain social distancing. Offering no-touch/no-interaction delivery can do the same. If customers are concerned about the virus being carried on food packaging, they should take the same steps they would take when handling food packages purchased at the grocery store: After handling takeout packaging and prior to eating, wash hands carefully with soap and water