Restaurants in many parts of the country are trying to navigate this strange in-between phase in which businesses are beginning to open and welcome customers back inside their doors. Your employees, customers and you may still be unsure about how to adequately protect everyone’s health at this stage – and people’s concerns about how to balance health and economic challenges still run the gamut. As much as you can, use clear signage at your front door and on your website homepage about your restaurant’s current safety policies and the wearing of masks indoors and when social distancing is difficult. If you are being stringent with employees about the wearing of masks, make sure you have extra masks at your front door so any unmasked person entering your restaurant can wear one too – and politely refuse service to anyone who doesn’t cooperate. It’s possible to welcome people back and emphasize how much you have missed them while also ensuring you protect your business in the ways you and your state authorities see fit.
Restaurants are used to having to protect food safety and minimize the chances of employee illness transmission and injury on the job, but the current situation requires extra precautions. First, ensure your staff is clear on your new protocols, and provide any new rules verbally and in print, and in different languages as needed. When you need to talk as a group or exchange documents, use technology as much as possible to limit in-person interactions. Within your establishment in both the front and back of house, make it easier to follow social distancing protocols and avoid congregating by marking off areas on the floor to separate people, tables and preparation areas. Take extra care with your handwashing stations to ensure they are well stocked – scrubbing with regular soap is the best defense against the spread of both the coronavirus and foodborne pathogens. Finally, make sure your team knows you take safety seriously: It’s a given that if they are sick or show symptoms of illness, they should not feel pressured or incentivized to work. But what’s your protocol if employees have recently been in contact with an infected person but have tested negative themselves? Anticipating your responses to such questions can help protect your team and business.
As restaurants and other businesses reopen and people gather in greater numbers, there is a risk of increased cases of Covid-19. Your cleaning practices, cleaning materials and labor scheduling plan needs to keep pace with the new environment. Chris Boyles, vice president of food safety at Steritech, told Restaurant Dive that cleaning costs will look different for restaurants now. For example: Do you have sufficient staff on hand to carry out your enhanced cleaning procedures? Are you using disinfectants that have been approved by the EPA for use against COVID-19? If one of your employees tests positive for the virus and you need to close your premises for cleaning, what will it cost to hire a third-party disinfection service if required? Anticipating these costs and planning for them may help you avoid having to pay more than needed as you ensure your business is clean and ready to serve guests.
If you are transporting food to customers or using outside providers to do so, make sure the steps you are taking to keep your facility clean and sanitized are also being used to keep food safe in transit. Beyond practicing social distancing when dropping off food and offering no-contact deliveries, the FDA advises the regular wiping down of surfaces within delivery vehicles and on touchpads using household cleaning sprays or wipes. Secure the wrapping and packaging you use for takeout food to prevent contamination and regularly clean and sanitize the coolers and insulated bags you use to carry food for delivery.
Cleanliness has new importance right now – both to your employees and your customers. As you prepare to bring people back into your establishment in greater numbers, promote the actions you are taking to protect everyone’s health and safety. Hyatt, for one, recently announced it is revamping its cleanliness guidelines and appointing a hygiene manager to each of its hotels in the coming months to ensure adherence to the new procedures. Now could be a good time to update your own cleaning procedures and do the kind of deep cleaning and disinfection that is difficult to take on in busier times. When is the last time you steam cleaned your walk-in cooler? Beyond cleaning and disinfecting surfaces such as tables, counters, touchscreens, faucets and light switches, focus on hard-to-reach areas in and around appliances, remote controls, keyboards and other electronics with recessed buttons that can harbor pathogens. While carrying out these cleaning tasks is simply part of running a restaurant, the public has never been more interested in knowing how you’re keeping them safe.
COVID-19 has made food traceability, transparency and protection all the more important – and difficult, particularly as meat facility workers have fallen ill in recent weeks and social distancing rules have limited in-person audits and inspections. So what can operators do to ensure their food supply is as safe as possible? Take this time to urge transparency from your vendors and understand what systems they are using to trace food through the supply chain. Uncertainty in the global food supply chain is also likely going to drive food businesses to think even more locally. Is there an opportunity right now for you to source more ingredients locally – or adjust your menu so you can?
Many restaurants are having to adjust their service models right now, whether with regard to accommodating delivery where it didn’t exist before or making adjustments to the foods and the markets they serve. If you are relying on teams of volunteers to transport your food to vulnerable populations – something that may need to happen with greater frequency in the months ahead – you may want to take advantage of some free resources to ensure the safety of your food in transit. Statefoodsafety.com offers a number of them, including a free online training course to help educate volunteers in key food safety principles to ensure they transport and serve your food safely. (Access the 22-minute video course here.) (https://www.statefoodsafety.com/CustomPortal/DisasterRelief#/)
At a time when restaurant businesses are operating at a reduced capacity and may be managing changes to key supplies, it’s important to take steps to keep ingredients fresh for as long as possible. Your refrigerator can help if it’s organized well. Be sure to store meats on the lowest shelves (but off of the refrigerator floor), keep delicate produce away from fans, and avoid overcrowding. Optimal refrigeration happens when there are a few inches of space between the refrigerator walls and your food, and there is also room for cool air to circulate around the foods you’re storing. Finally, ensuring you have clearly dated labels on everything will ensure the first item that goes into the refrigerator is also the first one out.
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.