Better food safety practices are likely to be among the permanent effects of the pandemic for foodservice operations. To ensure your improved practices have staying power, it’s important to bring together the various metrics you use to evaluate your food safety – including inspections from health departments and third parties as well as your own assessments – then review them regularly and communicate them clearly to staff. Comparing results over time and synthesizing evaluations from different sources can help you identify problem spots that need attention and translate them into clear action items for your team.
The pandemic has ushered in a new era in food safety – and made employees and consumers more aware of the practices restaurants use to protect health. Ongoing training is key to making food safety processes take hold, along with using multiple approaches for workers who learn in a range of ways. For example, Panda Express, which is a 2021 winner of the Fast Casual/Steritech Excellence in Food Safety Award, uses a training process that includes auditory, visual and tactile instruction, paired with hands-on learning. Kenny Chuang, executive director of Food Safety and Quality Assurance for the brand, told Fast Casual that this approach has helped cement comprehension of food safety terms, equipment and procedures across the business.
Hepatitis A is the only foodborne illness that can be prevented with a vaccine – yet it has led to 39,000 cases, 24,000 hospitalizations and 374 deaths since 2016, according to the CDC. The disease, which can cause serious liver infections, spreads through fecal-oral contact, whether from person to person or via contaminated food or water, which makes restaurant industry practices critical to controlling its spread. (An outbreak linked to a Virginia restaurant has recently doubled in size.) A report from Food Safety Magazine urges restaurant operators to consider offering employees a vaccine for Hepatitis A, combined with enforcing an effective handwashing policy, as a result. If a sizeable portion of your restaurant’s patrons are the young or the elderly, this could be especially important. Absent a vaccine, what safety measures might your restaurant improve to better protect itself against a potential Hepatitis outbreak?
Extreme weather is becoming a way of life – and if you operate in a region that gets cold in the winter months, there is increased risk of challenges including power outages that can lead to food spoilage, supply delays, and damage to facilities. Ensure you have a supply of winter weather safety tools ready in case of a storm: Shovels, batteries, flashlights, ice melt, and non-perishable food items, for starters. Have your HVAC system inspected to avoid surprise problems during the winter. Insulate any exposed pipes in your building – particularly now that outdoor spaces have become year-round extensions of the dining room. If a sudden power outage occurs, ensure you have a back-up plan to save the food items you’re refrigerating. Now is also a good time to review your emergency plan to make sure contact numbers for staff, suppliers and servicepeople are up to date and kept not only in the facility but in locations that can be accessed if you can’t reach the restaurant in inclement weather.
Poultry may be an especially hot commodity right now amid supply chain strains, but don’t let that result in the relaxation of any food safety standards on your part. Poultry is still among the top commodities responsible for foodborne illness, so it’s especially important to take care when preparing it. Keep raw poultry and its juices away from other foods during preparation and refrigeration. Don’t wash poultry, which can contaminate nearby surfaces. Cook it to an internal temperature of 165°F and ensure an accurate measure by inserting the thermometer into the thickest areas, avoiding bone.
Has your restaurant ever faced a food safety spillover? According to new research, when a competitor or a nearby restaurant experiences a food safety outbreak, consumers tend to make assumptions about the safety of your supply as a result. The research, published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, found that a theoretical E. Coli crisis at one restaurant made people hesitate to eat at other restaurants serving similar foods even though they were not involved in the outbreak. It’s all the more reason to enforce a top-down food safety culture within your restaurant – and communicate promptly with staff about outbreaks connected to the types of food you serve. It will not only help protect the safety of the items on your menu, but it will also build your team’s ability to communicate more confidently about it with guests if and when outbreaks occur.
Like last year, your business may be preparing to serve guests outdoors this winter – or at least to have more guests and delivery workers coming and going through your doors as they pick up orders in inclement weather. Make sure your facility is ready. Revisit how you will manage slick conditions outdoors in the case of cold weather or spilled drinks, ways you can prevent your indoor high-traffic areas from becoming slippery, and how you can limit the hazards of using areas adjacent to your restaurant – like shared parking areas or sidewalks being used for seating. Your cleaning procedures may need an update to address different seasonal risks.
Cleaning was once something restaurant employees tried to keep hidden behind the scenes. But now, your guests take comfort in knowing what you do to keep your facility clean and limit the spread of illness. What’s more, they are more likely to be watching what your team does to maintain safety between guests and during the course of a busy shift. Make your cleaning procedures a continuous part of your training and empower employees to take responsibility for safety within your business, knowing they have your backing. Wherever possible, employ digital tools to keep track of cleaning tasks that might be overlooked during a busy period and to provide regular alerts to staff about tasks that need to be completed.
At the start of the pandemic, many restaurant industry experts noted that “safety has become the new hospitality.” Nearly two years later, that continues to be true, and the beneficiaries of this hospitality are not only customers but also employees. In fact, at a time when hospitality employee turnover has hit record highs, FSR Magazine suggests operators make a concerted effort to market their employee safety. This is especially important as we approach the winter months. Think about it: If people are eager to get out of the house for a meal in the midst of flu season, they want to be extra sure that their server isn’t working while under the weather – or that they aren’t taking unnecessary risks by going out to enjoy a meal. Your employees (and prospective employees) also want some assurance that you are doing all you can to keep them healthy at work, while also respecting their need to miss a shift if they do become ill. Recent research found that the especially high turnover rate in the hospitality industry in recent months is due, in part, to employee concerns about getting sick while on the job. Consider what you can do to incentivize employee health – vaccination bonuses are just one example – and then promote your policy on your website and social media.
The likelihood of lingering COVID-19 infections, along with other seasonal illnesses, could make staffing more challenging this winter. To help ensure you’re doing all you can to minimize the spread of infection on your team and help your employees feel safe coming to work, consider how you can adjust your procedures to make employee-guest interactions safer and more efficient. Encourage guests to review your menu, order and pay via QR code. Consider adopting tableside technology that allows a guest to push a button if they need help so your staff can visit tables only when needed. Adjust your procedures for delivering and clearing dishes so your staff aren’t having to stand close to each person in a party. Where possible, stagger seating throughout your indoor and outdoor dining areas to minimize congestion. Finally, listen to employees who have concerns about sickness this winter and encourage the team to share possible solutions – making them feel heard can go a long way in making them feel safe.