As consumers take increased precautions to protect their safety during the coronavirus pandemic, they can take some solace that restaurants have to follow a detailed health and food safety protocol as a regular part of doing business – and that the transmission method of COVID-19 doesn’t change the efficacy of this protocol. Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, told the Huffington Post that because coronavirus infection occurs primarily through the respiratory system, the chance of getting COVID-19 from food is extremely low. “The respiratory virus risk in restaurants is really more about being in the same location as a lot of people, some of whom can be depositing the virus on surfaces like tables, doors, menus, and managing that with a hand washing and alcohol-based sanitizer regime is an effective step to reduce risks of both COVID-19 and Influenza.” Restricting restaurant sales to curbside takeout and delivery reduces those respiratory risks even further.
As the coronavirus has spread and restaurants have had to transition to a takeout-only model, what are restaurants to do to protect themselves and the customers they serve – and to somehow keep business coming in? Despite the many tech advances that have swept the industry, restaurants – until very recently – have been social places where people are on the front lines. A recent Restaurant Business report, which includes advice from a law firm specializing in employment issues, advises clear communication with employees in several areas: share your plan with them (and make sure it covers employee concerns such as your sick leave policy and your plan of operation during school closures) and provide training to ensure everyone knows what procedures to follow if they develop symptoms of COVID-19 or are diagnosed with it. Day to day, increase your efforts to sanitize door handles and kitchen and bathroom surfaces more often. Some operators are placing hand sanitizer at their building entrances, as well as outside the restroom and at stations in the back of the house. And while delivery was once considered a nice-to-have service, it’s now critical. Even if you don’t currently offer mobile ordering tech, now is the time to adjust your menu and offer a simple takeout menu that can be picked up outside of your establishment or dropped off outside a customer’s door for contactless delivery. Right now food delivery is considered a public service for people who are elderly, vulnerable and isolated, so promote on social media and to neighborhood news groups that you are open and ready to help, and provide your menu and contact information. Finally, encourage people to pick up the phone and call you – it’s old-fashioned but people are missing the social connections that restaurants have long been able to provide. You can provide a valuable way for people maintain those community ties as the industry pulls through this time of uncertainty.
Are dangerous bacteria lurking in your kitchen towels? Prevent the spread of germs by sanitizing and storing towels correctly between uses. The most recent USDA Food Code advises towels to be held between uses in a chemical sanitizer solution in the specified concentration. Ensure the towels and solution are not soiled and don’t contain any food debris. Used towels should be laundered daily in a mechanical washer, a sink used only for washing cloths or a food preparation sink that has been cleaned and sanitized. Refer to the food code for a full list of procedures to keep reusable towels free from contaminants.
When Chipotle made headlines recently for reports that its workplace practices and employee incentive programs were setting the stage for food safety risks at certain New York locations, it came as a surprise to many: In recent months, the brand has been held up as a standard-setter for food safety following its food safety overhaul, which included hiring a new food safety director and introducing such detailed steps as having two employees confirm that produce including onions, jalapeños and avocados have been immersed in hot water for five seconds to kill germs on their peels, the New York Times reported. However, a report by Delish said 47 current and former Chipotle employees came forward and reported that the brand’s pay bonus incentive program is coming at the expense of cleanliness audits and food safety – and that the restaurant is a “highly pressurized environment” for workers. How does your restaurant motivate employees to uphold your food safety practices? Creating a set time for food safety reminders each day can help reinforce your commitment to your food safety culture – and finding some light-hearted ways to do it can help too. The National Restaurant Association’s Mick Miklos told Foodservice Director that operators can set the right example by starting shifts with a food safety pop quiz for staff, for example, then rewarding the top scorers with their preferred shifts or gift cards.
Your ice machine may be a key source of contamination in your restaurant if you don’t take proper precautions. A study by the BBC in 2017 found that in 30 samples of iced beverages collected from three quick-service restaurants in the U.K., more than half were contaminated with fecal bacteria because of dirty ice. Since ice machines vary, take care to note in your food safety procedures how and when your machine’s manufacturer advises you to clean and sanitize your machine. QSR Magazine suggests operators inspect their machine each week for the buildup of slime or debris on interior surfaces in particular. Have a vendor or team member double-check the quality of a cleaning and use a flashlight to illuminate any dimly lit or hard-to-reach areas. Finally, don’t wait for slime to develop – if you see traces of it, increase the frequency of your cleaning to avoid the likelihood of contamination.
Even if you have a winning menu and friendly staff, your restroom could be turning people off of your restaurant. A Harris Poll survey of more than 2,000 adults found that 86 percent of respondents said a clogged toilet would negatively affect their perception of a business – and 76 percent of respondents had experienced this situation in a public restroom. While you may not have the capacity to monitor your restrooms regularly during the day, you can take steps to minimize bathroom clogs, odors, bacteria and other problems that can impact your restroom’s condition and your brand. QSRweb advises operators buy toilet paper that fights clogs and activates environmentally safe microorganisms when it touches water, helping to keep pipes clear. Opt for paper towels for better sanitation – air dryers can blow bacteria around a restroom – and use touch-free faucets and dispensers to help limit the spread of germs.
If your dishware and utensils aren’t as clean as they could be, they could sicken a guest (or at least leave them with a negative impression of your operation’s cleanliness). Make sure you maintain and clean your dishwasher to ensure it performs as it should. Ecolab advises to first avoid overcrowding the washer, since overlapping dishes can impede water flow. Then monitor the functioning of the unit by checking your gauges’ minimum temperatures, chemical concentrations and pressure measurements against those shown on the data plate. Clean the unit’s wash arms and jets regularly as they may become clogged with food or sediment buildup. Finally, Ecolab advises regular de-liming of the machine, since just one-quarter inch of lime scale can make a heating element use 39 percent more energy.
If your business needs a fresh start on protecting food safety, the start of a new year is a perfect time to recalibrate your organization and reinforce expectations. QSR Magazine advises that you start at the top, ensuring your company leaders are demonstrating a strong commitment to food safety. Explain the “why” behind the “what” so employees grasp the importance of protecting food safety and understand that even mistakes that seem minor can sicken or perhaps kill a guest. Provide the right equipment and offer training on a continuous basis. Enforce the importance of keeping temperature logs and maintaining records. Inspect food to make sure it is safe upon arrival, and give employees the authority to refuse foods they believe could be unsafe to consume. Follow food allergy protocols and conduct your own inspections on a regular basis to ensure all employees are following food safety protocols.
If offering catering and preparing food for large groups is a growing part of your service strategy, be aware of how long you’re using utensils and equipment continuously. Statefoodsafety advises that if you’re preparing TCS foods, you should clean and sanitize equipment and utensils every four hours. Otherwise you may be opening the door to contamination.
Does your restaurant buy pre-washed produce? Remember that it still must be washed under running water during preparation. Steritech also advises that bacteria can be transferred from the surface of produce to its flesh when cut, so be sure to make sure your fruit and vegetables are washed thoroughly in running water prior to cutting them.