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.
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.
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.
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.