While more frequent handwashing and use of alcohol-based sanitizers may be keeping bacteria at bay in your restaurant, they may also wreak havoc on skin during the winter months. Dry, cracked, itchy, flaky or even bleeding skin can result – and increase the risk of infection. While washing with lukewarm water and using moisturizers can help, the use of ointments or creams isn’t practical when preparing food. Encourage your staff to take extra care of their skin when they are away from work. The American Academy of Dermatology Association advises moisturizing immediately after washing hands and using a squeezable, fragrance-free, mineral oil- or petrolatum-based cream or ointment. Doing so is especially important after applying alcohol-based sanitizers, which can be more drying for skin.
When one of your employees is sick, do they feel there will be negative consequences if they report it to you? To be sure, restaurants are shouldering existential challenges right now and need to be able to rely on their teams. But make sure you prioritize safety – even if it means being temporarily short-staffed. The Centers for Disease Control have been emphasizing employee self-reporting of symptoms during the pandemic – and encouraging transparency with your team may help you avoid a larger safety problem. You can help by keeping up with daily health screenings for all employees, along with regular training to reinforce that you value the safety of your people and want everyone to be healthy – but won’t take punitive action if they aren’t.
Are your customers always right? Of course not. But for decades, many restaurant operators have behaved this way, aiming to accommodate anything customers request or demand (and sometimes taking abuse in the process). Many customers have adopted the expectation that this is okay. But the pandemic may spur a change in thinking. Right now, your ability to operate safely and continuously, retain your employees, minimize staff illness and prevent the spread of the virus requires firm boundaries. What lines are you unwilling to cross for customers? Consider how you would respond to everything from lapse in social distancing in your dining room to a tantrum from an unmasked customer. Be clear about your policy with employees, provide language to help them handle a difficult situation professionally, and back up your team as needed. (This applies to abuse you receive from customers online too.)
While pandemic fatigue set in long ago – and may have resulted in some lax health and safety behaviors on your staff by this point – the next few months will require extra vigilance. At the time of this writing, the more-contagious U.K. variant of the coronavirus had begun to spread to other countries including the U.S. The longer the coronavirus is around and causing more infections, the more opportunities there will be for new mutations of the virus to occur. Dr. Stuart Ray, an expert in the virus that causes COVID-19 and vice chair of medicine for data integrity and analytics at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said human behaviors are especially important to containing the virus as new strains emerge. “We need to re-emphasize basic public health measures, including masking, physical distancing, good ventilation indoors, and limiting gatherings of people in close proximity with poor ventilation,” he said. “We give the virus an advantage to evolve when we congregate in more confined spaces.” Beyond those measures, reemphasize the importance of no-contact food deliveries and pickups. Further, as the vaccine becomes more widely available to essential workers including foodservice staff, have an ongoing dialogue with your team about vaccination – and the science backing its safety. While you may not want to mandate vaccination, you can encourage staff to get the vaccine by offering to cover associated costs, as Chipotle’s Brian Niccol announced the brand will be doing.
Contactless ordering and payment have been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic – and to be sure, they are safeguards guests appreciate. But there are many other touchpoints in your facility that concern consumers right now. Trace the path of a typical guest in your restaurant – are there touchpoints you can remove or other safeguards you can apply to make them more sanitary? Do guests have to touch parts of your trash bins – both those in restrooms and others placed in or around your dining rooms – to discard waste? Do they have to hand over a table marker to claim their order? When they visit a restroom, do they have to use an air dryer that can spread contaminants through the space? If possible, place contactless paper towel dispensers in restrooms and near bins or compactors. Help limit the need to touch dispensers and door handles throughout your facility – or make it possible for people to sanitize their hands afterwards.
As operators weather what is likely going to be a difficult winter, many of those fortunate enough to have outdoor spaces have taken steps to outfit them with heated pods, screens and other partitions aimed at containing the spread of the virus while also allowing the safe (and more comfortable) serving of guests as the temperature drops. But according to medical experts, these spaces can be as risky as indoor settings if operators don’t take sufficient precautions. To minimize the spread of infection in the next couple of months, be sure to air out individual dining pods between guests, or in case you have a partially enclosed space for dining outdoors, ensure that air is able to circulate throughout it. Outdoor space heaters and fireplaces can help beat the chill without posing additional safety risks, and you can also encourage guests to bring their own blankets to keep warm during their meal.
As we wait for the COVID-19 vaccine to be distributed to more people across the country, we must still manage what could be an especially challenging winter for restaurants. Ongoing cases of COVID-19, on top of normal seasonal concerns like the flu, will make restaurant health and safety practices take on extra importance right now. Make your commitment to safety clear on everything from your front door to your website. Persist with mask wearing indoors and when delivering food (whether through in-house staff or a vendor), enforce social distancing in your dining areas and kitchen, and regularly ensure your facility is well ventilated, air is purified and high-touch surfaces are cleaned. It will help you earn trust from customers, and at a minimum, could help you minimize winter-illness absences on your team.
This year has provided a stark wake-up call about the importance of protecting the safety of our food. Up-and-coming technology called hyperspectral imaging, which can detect pathogens in food, optimize the uniformity of a product’s quality and even help with precision agriculture, has been gaining ground rapidly in the food safety industry this year. In the coming months, it’s an additional feature to watch for and discuss with food suppliers and distributors, particularly as more foodservice operations adopt speed-scratch food products to help boost efficiency. Learn more about the technology here (https://bit.ly/2JcwyHC).
This year has asked so much of restaurant operators – as innovators, entrepreneurs, managers and neighbors. While it’s natural for people in the service profession to look for ways to serve guests well, taking care of staff – and themselves – can take a backseat. But the well-being of a restaurant’s entire team trickles down through your business and impacts all of your relationships. The slower period this winter may be a time to refocus on strengthening your team from the inside out. Mental health in restaurants was a central theme of the recent Chefs’ Congress in Lisbon. According to this report in Forbes, the event incorporated videos, workshops and techniques designed to allow owners, chefs, cooks and workers to better understand how to manage teams, partner with human resources, and increase awareness of workers' rights and risk factors. It even offered anonymous therapy sessions for restaurant professionals. As awareness of these issues grows, such events can provide teaching tools and other resources for operators regardless of where they do business.
Even after we have a vaccine for COVID-19, the virus will still be with us and there will be a portion of the population especially vulnerable to it. Much like we have adapted our kitchens and food preparation practices for those with gluten allergies, we will likely have to make long-term changes to how we operate to protect against the coronavirus. Think about the ventilation in your facility, the level of interaction among your staff, technology that enables fast and contactless payment, and seamless pick-ups. Are there changes you have made in recent months that feel temporary but could be made permanent – and might help customers feel safer with you in the long term?