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.
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?
As the coronavirus has spread and restaurants have had to transition to a takeout-only model, what are restaurants to do to protect themselves and the customers they serve – and to somehow keep business coming in? Despite the many tech advances that have swept the industry, restaurants – until very recently – have been social places where people are on the front lines. A recent Restaurant Business report, which includes advice from a law firm specializing in employment issues, advises clear communication with employees in several areas: share your plan with them (and make sure it covers employee concerns such as your sick leave policy and your plan of operation during school closures) and provide training to ensure everyone knows what procedures to follow if they develop symptoms of COVID-19 or are diagnosed with it. Day to day, increase your efforts to sanitize door handles and kitchen and bathroom surfaces more often. Some operators are placing hand sanitizer at their building entrances, as well as outside the restroom and at stations in the back of the house. And while delivery was once considered a nice-to-have service, it’s now critical. Even if you don’t currently offer mobile ordering tech, now is the time to adjust your menu and offer a simple takeout menu that can be picked up outside of your establishment or dropped off outside a customer’s door for contactless delivery. Right now food delivery is considered a public service for people who are elderly, vulnerable and isolated, so promote on social media and to neighborhood news groups that you are open and ready to help, and provide your menu and contact information. Finally, encourage people to pick up the phone and call you – it’s old-fashioned but people are missing the social connections that restaurants have long been able to provide. You can provide a valuable way for people maintain those community ties as the industry pulls through this time of uncertainty.
While at the time of this writing fewer than 20 cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed in the U.S., the illness had still created a ripple effect: Across the country, many Chinese restaurants have taken a hit due to the panic associated with the illness. Even if you don’t operate a Chinese restaurant, you can likely appreciate the challenge of trying to manage a sudden health crisis that threatens your brand – or even your entire restaurant category. The widespread nature of supply chains, along with the increased risk of viruses and weather-related crop damage, mean your restaurant could face a brand crisis at any time. It’s critical to have a contingency plan for responding to such events so you don’t have to create a plan mid-crisis. In a report from the Vending Times, Steritech’s Paula Herald suggests brands should take such steps as securing food supplies and distribution agreements, developing a food security plan to protect their operation from theft in the case of shortages, reviewing and refining their sick-leave policies, developing a plan to manage widespread absenteeism including limits on public transport, cross-training staff so workers can easily step in for others who are out, and keeping (and discussing with employees) up-to-date-communication plans and staff contact lists so they’re not struggling to get in touch with their team during a health crisis. Are you confident in your current crisis response plan – and in your team’s ability to carry it out?
As severe weather becomes more common, the increased risk of power outages can threaten food safety. Make sure you monitor your TCS foods to prevent spoilage and discard items that have gone out of temperature range. Steritech advises that you monitor and document food temperatures as long as it is safe to stay in the building. Promptly after losing power, prepare ice baths for your TCS foods. Dry ice can also help you keep refrigeration temperatures at 41° F or below – just be cautious with it as it can produce dangerous gas in enclosed areas. Avoid opening cooler doors as much as possible – a freezer in good condition may maintain its temperature for 24 hours if unopened. Test foods using a calibrated thermometer and throw out any TCS foods that have been warmer than 41° F for more than two hours.
As hurricanes become more frequent and powerful, know the do’s and don’ts about managing food and other items in your business that may have come into contact with flood water during a severe storm. In addition to discarding more obvious items like food and grains that were contaminated, Steritech also advises you dispose of single-service items, spices and seasonings, foils and plastic wrap, wooden cutting boards and jars or bottles that have screw or caps, or flip or snap tops. The same goes for fabric, carpets and any kitchen equipment that can’t be disinfected.
Last year, there were 14 severe weather and climate events that the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information says cost $1 billion or more. There have been six such events already this year. Since restaurants can be impacted by severe weather events both directly and indirectly, it pays to make sure you have sufficient insurance protection in place as part of your disaster preparedness plan — not to mention your day-to-day operating plan. Your insurance cover needs to consider your business type, geographic region and the outcome of the risk assessment you conduct to identify your restaurant’s greatest vulnerabilities. Your commercial property insurance policy, for example, likely will not cover any vehicles your restaurant operates or protect against flood damage your business sustains during a hurricane. And even if your property or vehicles make it through a severe weather event unscathed, toppled trees or flooding on your street could make it impossible for you to get food to customers. Make sure you review your insurance policies for commercial property, flood protection and business interruption to make sure you’re not leaving your business exposed. Purchasing insurance cover from companies that specialize in the restaurant industry can help. Just make sure you read the fine print carefully — especially on bundled packages that offer broader cover for a lower total price but may exclude specific risks you need to protect against.
Hurricane season is here, and if you haven’t done so already, it’s high time to review your emergency response plan to make sure you can manage potential business disruptions that may come your way. Statefoodsafety.com suggests listing potential threats, ranging from power outages to food or water contamination, so you can build a simple but useful response plan from them — your local authority can help you create it. Assign roles to key employees and ensure every employee knows who handles various tasks. Establish talking points so your team communicates the same clear, calm message to customers. Post a list of emergency contacts (and also provide it to employees) so your team knows who can help in an emergency. Finally, protect your food and water supply. Establish a plan to keep food cool by keeping the refrigerator door closed when you can, storing ice in the refrigerator or freezer to keep temperatures down, or securing access to a refrigerated truck. Consider keeping an emergency supply of water and developing a separate menu that requires less water for preparation so you can still operate when your supply is threatened.