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?
Certain foods that have been served to guests can be served again to other guests – but those foods need to meet strict criteria. As Statefoodsafety.com reports, food in an unopened package that shows no signs of contamination can be served again. So, undisturbed packets of condiments, creamer, sweeteners and crackers are all fair game. The same cannot be said of the bread basket that returns to the kitchen untouched.
In the wake of recent reports that the FDA and CDC knew of three E.coli outbreaks connected to romaine lettuce that infected nearly 300 people and killed six, a number of researchers in the food safety industry have gone on the offensive. The editor of Food Safety News, for one, declared that in articles it prints about the agencies in the coming weeks, it would attach warning language saying “both agencies have shown a reckless disregard for the public’s right to know, and their reliability going forward remains suspect.” Restaurant operators can decide for themselves how much trust to place in the agencies when it comes to their supply chains, but in the meantime, some are taking actions ranging from omitting menu items with poor track records on contamination to relying on product recall coverage to protect their business in the case of an outbreak.
At a time when the foodservice industry is embracing foods that promote health and well-being, those qualities don’t often come to mind when one thinks of the foodservice profession itself. But finding ways to protect your well-being and that of your staff can protect morale and promote retention. Beyond creating healthy routines around meals, sleep and exercise, Chefify suggests establishing boundaries – with your employer and staff. It can help you handle everything from negotiating sufficient time off between shifts to managing everyday problems more efficiently (and being selective about the ones you take on). Take stock of your day with staff to review what went well and what needs improvement. Establish clear working hours for yourself and your team. Don’t oversell your knowledge and experience – or be afraid to delegate tasks to others: Relying on other people helps make them accountable. Finally, don’t lose your connection with the outside world – keeping tabs on events happening outside of the foodservice industry can provide perspective and may help you conceive of new ideas that will keep your work interesting and fresh.
This summer, the Arkansas Department of Health advised people who had eaten at a specific McDonald’s to get vaccinated for Hepatitis A. This followed news that a McDonald’s employee had tested positive for the virus, which has infected nearly 400 people in Arkansas since early last year, Delish reports. When these events occur, expect the food safety landscape to shift – and put restaurant operators on the defensive. As of this writing, Detroit’s Public Health and Safety Committee was in the process of proposing an ordinance to require restaurants to use color-coded signs (as opposed to letter grades) to clarify their standing with the city’s health department, Food Safety News reports. A Hepatitis A outbreak in Detroit motivated the action, which is intended to both push operators to improve results and provide greater transparency to the public about a restaurant’s food safety record. The model for the color-coded system is Columbus, Ohio, which has a four-tiered system to classify a restaurant’s standing with the health department: Green, yellow, white and red signs announce whether a restaurant has passed inspection and meets the city’s standard, is closed based on the order of local health department officials, or falls somewhere in between.
You stick to strict cleaning procedures and take steps to avoid the cross-contamination of foods, but how much do you know about the quality of the air in your facility? You may have excess dust accumulating in the air that can contaminate food, or moisture from ovens that can generate condensation and lead to mold. Further, the simple act of cooking can make indoor air as dangerous to breathe as smog, according to new research from HomeChem. Asthma or other respiratory ailments on your kitchen team can signal you have a problem, but you can improve air quality going forward by maintaining appliances and ventilation units routinely, having your air tested for chemical or biological pollutants, replacing old cookware with models that are less likely to contaminate the air, and using natural building materials and decorative elements in your restaurant.
Restaurant work can be physically and emotionally grueling — but operators can take steps to make the environment a healthier one for staff. We Are Chefs offered some suggestions to set a positive tone. First, take charge of hydration: Have a water-drinking competition and award a point for each day a person reaches a set level, and replace energy drinks with body-friendly options like Emergen-C over iced soda water. Offer healthier options on your staff menu. Now that the weather is improving in many places, get staff outside, whether for just a quick stretch, to clean racks or to cook specials on a smoker. Challenge your team to walk or bike to work. Finally, keep your music and conversation upbeat and positive.