Safety is the new hospitality – but will the enhanced, labor-intensive cleaning practices brought on by the pandemic persist indefinitely? Chris Boyles, vice president of food safety for Steritech, told Modern Restaurant Management recently that he sees potential for growth in food safety technologies ranging from far UVC light to kitchen sensors – tools that both happen to lighten the cleaning load for staff. Far UVC light, with its ability to destroy germs without harming people, may be tested this winter as operators battle through both flu season and COVID-19. Meanwhile, Boyles predicts that the use of sensors to ensure food safety may expand as operators automate more of their food preparation processes going forward.
Face masks don’t exactly have a reputation for comfort: they get hot, hurt the ears and steam up a glasses-wearing person’s lenses with every exhale. So can a clear face shield serve as a more comfortable substitute? Unfortunately, no. A report from MIT Medical confirms, COVID-19 spreads primarily from person to person through respiratory droplets we generate when we talk, shout, sing and simply breathe – and a face shield can’t contain those droplets like a mask that fits around the nose and mouth. However, since social distancing is the key approach to preventing the spread of the virus, a person can wear a shield along with a mask around their neck that can be pulled up when they are within six feet of others -- if the nature of their job allows for that.
It’s only natural to want to clean everything in sight during a pandemic – and restaurant operators, among other organizations, are embracing more frequent surface cleanings and deep cleanings in an effort to keep their business safe and project the impression that their restaurant can be trusted. Remember the true risk when focusing on operating in current conditions. A July article in the medical journal The Lancet said studies that found COVID-19 was likely to live on metal and paper for days were based on strong concentrations of the virus – in other words, 100 people would have to sneeze on the same area of a surface to recreate the testing conditions. Not so likely, right? So focus on the primary way the virus is transmitted: through the air. Assess indoor air circulation in your facility. Ensure your staff is ready to follow protocols on sneezing and coughing. Enforce the wearing of masks and the placement of people around your restaurant. A report from The Atlantic illustrates the risk of prioritizing the cleaning of surfaces as opposed to the air we’re breathing. All of this is not to say it’s not important to follow cleaning procedures that minimize the risk of contamination – just don’t let them distract from common areas of virus risk transmission. #foodsafety
On July 4th weekend, a San Francisco wedding celebration reportedly became a breeding ground for COVID-19. Following a rehearsal dinner gathering of 40 guests at the Harborview Restaurant and Bar, the wedding couple and at least eight of their guests from across the country tested positive for the virus. But according to an Eater report that addressed reviews of the restaurant’s policies for managing groups, as well as information relayed by a restaurant spokesperson, Harborview seems to have done everything right: They took such steps as spacing tables six feet apart, separating guests by household or family unit, plating food that they had previously served family style, and reminding guests to wear face coverings. After the outbreak, employees were tested and results came back negative. So what is a restaurant to do when it follows guidelines and takes the right precautions but must bear the brunt of bad publicity after an outbreak? Start by going on the PR offensive, collecting facts to demonstrate your commitment to safety, and sharing them with the media and on your social platforms. Partner with your health officials and describe what precautions you have taken, from new employee training procedures and protocols to virus testing to signage advising guests how to maintain safety – and publicize their findings in the news media, on your website and on your social networks. Take photos and video of your facility, introduce staff and talk about how your policies have changed since COVID-19. Finally, for the moment, rethink catering to weddings – and other gatherings where people set out to socialize and celebrate with friends and family, consume alcohol, and perhaps let down their guard and ignore precautions. They may be best left to large outdoor settings or until after a vaccine is readily available.
In all likelihood, COVID-19 has made both your customers and employees more anxious about safety – and your customers may not fully appreciate all of the measures you and your staff have always taken to protect their health. A report from Modern Restaurant Management about the unforeseen challenges of the pandemic advises having a plan for managing both staff and customer responses to new stresses. Ensure your employees are clear on your new procedures and have been trained on how to respond to the range of new concerns they may hear from customers. Empower them to politely set boundaries with guests who demand precautions beyond the requirements of regulatory authorities. Make your expectations clear to your team about not only your service but their own health – they should know they should not ever risk coming to work while showing symptoms of illness. #foodsafety
Amid the spread of COVID-19, it’s only natural to be more concerned about the health of other people and whether you or your team could inadvertently be spreading infection. Just make sure that when hiring new staff and monitoring your team’s health, you comply with regulations and understand where existing and new regulations overlap. The National Restaurant Association reports that, for example, while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act rules continue to apply in the current pandemic, they do not prevent you from following the COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention or state and local public health authorities. So during a pandemic, you can ask staff about disabilities or require medical exams of employees who don’t have symptoms, since it is a means of identifying people at higher risk for complications. You may also take a person’s temperature and ask about potential exposure during a person’s travels. Just remember privacy and confidentiality requirements under the ADA and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Your updated health and safety practices are only as good as the efforts of employees carrying them out. Now that protective equipment like gloves and masks have become the norm in restaurants, make sure your employees aren’t just wearing these items but are using them properly. This New York Times report about the new experience of dining out scrutinized some employee behaviors that didn’t reflect their parent company’s COVID-19 practices – such as a server not wearing gloves when delivering food to guests and another wearing a face mask below her nose. Does your training address how to place face masks and how they should fit on a person’s face? Does it detail who must wear gloves, when they must be worn and changed, and what your team must do when changing gloves to ensure they don’t contaminate food or surfaces around your establishment? Make sure your team is prepared to walk your talk when it comes to protecting safety.
When Chipotle had to manage an E. coli outbreak in 2015, its actions paved the way for 2020. To earn customers’ trust, it overhauled its food preparation practices – and in the process created a solid foundation to operate during the challenging climate that is 2020. The protocols introduced, which Fortune said included washing hands between tasks, placing hand sanitizer at the door and changing air filtration systems, sound like a list of COVID-19 reopening guidelines. While the brand has made other operational changes during the pandemic, those changes have focused on paid sick leave, employee compensation and delivery tracking – while other brands have had to implement more sweeping changes. Could your restaurant’s longtime safety record help you create a better blueprint for safety now?
How do your employees get to work? Much is said about how to properly use public transport to minimize the spread of infection, but even if your staff travels to work by car, it’s important for them to take safety precautions – particularly as many states are having to tighten their safety procedures in light of rising COVID-19 infection rates. The CDC advises people to clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces of personal vehicles (e.g. steering wheel, door handles, gear shift and seat belt buckles). When using parking meters and fuel nozzles, disinfect surfaces with alcohol wipes or use a hand sanitizer afterwards. Travel with open windows or at least avoid using the recirculated air setting in a car. Finally, consider limiting the number of people in the car to only those who are necessary.
“Safety is like the new hospitality.” That’s what Bob Duprey, founder of RestaurantPlaybook.com, recently told Restaurant Dive. Even before you consider the quality of your menu or your service right now, focus on your cleanliness and safety. According to new research shared during this Datassential webinar (https://bit.ly/2C2pgCq), 76 percent of consumers say a restaurant’s cleanliness and food safety procedures will always matter more to them now than they did before. Among those surveyed, cleanliness ranked more highly than everything from the taste of the food to the value of menu items. Drilling down further, the survey respondents’ top safety concerns were overwhelmingly about touching items that others had touched and being too close to other customers. In your communications with customers and social media posts, make sure you’re clear about how you have reconfigured your operation to protect updated safety procedures.