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.
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.
To date, there have been no reports of COVID-19 being spread via food or food packaging. The main risks of contracting the illness are related to being around people who are infected and then contracting the virus through the respiratory tract – not the gastrointestinal tract. However, you can take steps to demonstrate to takeout and delivery customers that you are doing all you can to prevent the spread of the virus. A new report from the North Carolina State University says take-out and drive-thru food options are a good choice for high-risk groups because they minimize touch points and help maintain social distancing. Offering no-touch/no-interaction delivery can do the same. If customers are concerned about the virus being carried on food packaging, they should take the same steps they would take when handling food packages purchased at the grocery store: After handling takeout packaging and prior to eating, wash hands carefully with soap and water
When you receive food deliveries, does your staff know how to spot red flags that can indicate problems with the storage of foods before they were delivered? As Statefoodsafety.com advises, frozen foods should arrive frozen, and without any visible liquids, frozen liquids or ice crystals, which indicate prior thawing. Refrigerated foods should arrive under 41˚F, with the exception of eggs, which can be received when the air surrounding the eggs is 45˚F or lower. Hot foods should arrive at 135˚F or higher. To test the temperature of flat foods like bacon, place the thermometer between packages. Before you test the temperature of a new food item, clean and sanitize your food thermometer to ensure you get an accurate reading.