Increasingly, consumers care about the precautions businesses are taking to protect the safety of their food en route to the businesses selling it to them. The software and engineering firm Emerson recently surveyed 1,000 U.S. consumers about food safety practices – and what they expect to see from suppliers. More than 50 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to shop at stores that aren’t using (or requiring suppliers to use) the latest technology to keep food safe. Half of respondents said they are now more concerned about the safety of their food than they were before the pandemic. Nearly 60 percent said the pandemic has made them want to support local businesses. When you promote food safety to guests, look beyond your operation. Trace the path of your menu items and try to shorten that path where possible. Share the tech products and practices that help keep their food fresh and safe between its source and their dinner table.
The sharp rise in off-premise dining likely means that most, if not all, of your menu is being eaten a good 30 minutes after it’s prepared. How well does it survive the journey from chef to customer? Just as you have likely had to give your business an update to operate effectively right now, your off-premise packaging may need some fine-tuning to make sure it keeps hot foods hot, cold foods cold, and protects food safety overall. Companies are coming to market with new packaging to suit the times – and some operators (like Garry Kanfer of Kissaki Omakase in New York) are even designing their own solutions. If you’re looking for improved methods of packaging foods and protecting them during transport, you’re apt to find plenty of models that may help.
Turkey time is coming quickly. Whether you’re planning to pack up full meals to be heated and eaten off-premise, provide Thanksgiving meal kits for home cooks, or serve Thanksgiving meals on site (and obviously boxing up guests’ must-have leftovers), you need to ensure your food is both transported securely at the proper temperatures and consumed in a way that minimizes the risk for foodborne illness. It’s easy for not only turkey but also side dishes to be left out for too long or cooked inadequately, making it easier for bacteria to multiply. Providing your guests with detailed instructions for heating, refrigerating and reheating, and make sure you have well-insulated packaging that will ensure your dishes can be transported at safe temperatures.
Let’s face it: Even if you keep your coolers and cooking equipment sparkling clean, a sloppy handoff of food to a customer can negate any special care you’re taking behind the scenes. Make sure your updated health and safety procedures carry through to when you pass food to customers who are collecting takeout or receiving deliveries. For takeout orders, Statefoodsafety.com advises taking extra care to wash hands regularly, keep food preparation areas clean, avoid cross-contamination of items and, if needed, keep food awaiting pickup in either hot- or cold-storage equipment until a customer collects it. Delivery drivers should arrive in a clean vehicle, have a means of cleaning their hands regularly, avoid touching potentially contaminated surfaces before touching food or food containers, and have storage that keeps foods at the proper temperature at delivery.
A recent survey of 700 restaurant guests by the restaurant tech company Toast found that restaurant takeout has been more popular than delivery in recent months – and cleanliness is a concern for more people ordering delivery than it is for those ordering takeout. Particularly if you use a third-party delivery provider, customers must not only trust your restaurant staff to prepare and package your food safely but trust the safety of delivery drivers and their vehicles. Promoting your staff’s updated safety procedures – right down to the care your team takes in packaging each order and the minimal handoffs between the chef and customer – could be yet another tactic to entice customers to come to you to collect their order instead of opting for the convenience of delivery.
If you’re new to delivery or are using existing staff to help accommodate deliveries right now, make sure your delivery protocol keeps your staff, customers and food safe. Statefoodsafety.com advises you take some steps to safeguard your practices. First, make sure the delivery vehicle is kept clean and won’t attract pests. Package food securely and keep raw or allergenic foods separate. Use coolers or thermal blankets to keep food at proper temperatures en route. Finally, maintain social distancing when dropping off food to not only protect safety but to demonstrate your commitment to it.
If takeout meals, meal kits or refrigerated meals to be prepared at home represent a larger percentage of your business right now – or you suspect they will in the future – make sure your packaging and heating instructions have kept up with the changes. Prepare clear cooking and reheating instructions and label your packaging accordingly (and don’t forget to list common allergens). If food can be refrigerated or frozen, include consume-by dates too.
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.
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#/)
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.