Extreme heat has become a way of life in recent summers. The past seven years have been the seven hottest years on record. Further, the number of heat waves each year have tripled since the 1960s, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Those already-high temperatures skyrocket in a busy restaurant kitchen. Hot temperatures are not only dangerous for older workers but a drain on productivity. In a recent article in The Washington Post, Chad Asplund, a sports medicine physician and the executive director for the U.S. Council for Athletes’ Health, said there are similarities between athletes and minimum-wage workers when it comes to pushing physical boundaries in the heat. “I have seen studies that demonstrate that errors for indoor workers start going up 1 percent at every degree above 77 degrees, and that once you get higher than 92 degrees, you start losing your productivity,” he said. While the restaurant industry lacks regulations when it comes to managing heat in foodservice kitchens, expect that to change as more parts of the U.S. experience unseasonably high temperatures – and think now about how you may need to adapt your business to provide relief, in the form of breaks and substitute staff.
It may be cold outside, but don’t forget to take the proper precautions when cooling foods – particularly if you’re making winter soups or large quantities of other items to be refrigerated or freezed and served later. To keep foods out of the temperature danger zone (between 40°F and 140°F, where bacteria grow most rapidly), you don’t want to leave food unrefrigerated for more than two hours. On the flip side, refrigerating a hot food prematurely can also compromise the cooling of other foods in your refrigerator. To expedite the cooling of foods prior to refrigeration, try storing them in shallow containers – ideally stainless steel, which transfers heat away from foods more quickly; placing the food in an ice-water bath and stirring it frequently; using an ice paddle to distribute cold through a food; or storing it, loosely covered, in cold-holding equipment to help cool the food down.
‘Tis the season for poultry – and an important time to review how to prepare it safely. Remember to wash hands, cutting boards, utensils and other nearby kitchen prep surfaces with soap and water immediately after handling raw poultry. Don’t rinse poultry in the sink, as it will not remove bacteria and can actually spread it around your kitchen. Place it on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator to avoid any leakage that could contaminate other foods. Cook it to an internal temperature of 165°F as measured with a food thermometer, then refrigerate leftovers no more than two hours after cooking.
You may have found ways to socially distance tables in your dining room, invent curb-side pickup service outside your restaurant or create an outdoor eating area where one didn’t exist before – but how feasible has it been for you to make the changes to your kitchen that the pandemic has mandated for safety compliance? Restaurant kitchens generally conjure images of busy, loud spaces where people collaborate side by side, proper ventilation is a challenge and mask wearing can hinder both communication and comfort. That model doesn’t work anymore – so what can be done to both keep your kitchen busy with food preparation and minimize risks to staff? Futuristic Labs founder Goutham Gandhi says automation, which has become the norm in so many other facets of our lives, still has a long way to go in the kitchen – and the pandemic may fast-track its deployment. In a recent Modern Restaurant Management report, he predicts that the use of tools such as Riku, an automatic rice and curry maker that creates a range of recipes, will become the norm. This winter may prove telling in that area, particularly if and when operators experience last-minute labor shortages due to illness or lockdowns. Even if the automation of food preparation tasks isn’t practical for you, it’s still important to assess your menu and identify ways to minimize the labor and time required to prepare it. That may involve incorporating more speed-scratch and frozen foods, and identifying areas where labor-saving tools, technology or procedures may help you do more with less staff.
Don’t let hurricane season or other severe weather events compromise food safety at your restaurant. If possible, take steps now to safeguard your facility against weather threats. The USDA advises designating space well off the floor to store non-perishable items that would otherwise be contaminated in the event of a flood. Have appliance thermometers in your refrigerator and freezer to monitor temperatures during power outages. You can also better preserve foods by freezing items in your refrigerator that you won’t need right away, grouping frozen items together to keep them cold longer, and using gel packs, frozen containers of water and dry ice to maintain cold temperatures in your freezer if your power is out for an extended period.
As restaurants reopen their dining rooms, there has been much focus on maintaining distance between tables. But don’t neglect your kitchen. While a few months ago, it might have been workable to have your back-of-house team working side by side and shouting across the room in a space with passable ventilation, that won’t work now. If your staff prepared each dish in a line, can you adjust your procedures so one person is responsible for preparing and plating each dish – or better stagger staff to allow greater distance between them? In the interest of limiting the spread of the virus should one of your staff be infected, can you create teams of employees that rotate on and off shifts together? While the National Restaurant Association and your local authorities have offered reopening guidelines, you know your kitchen best – and what safety precautions are most likely to fall by the wayside during a rush. What weak points can you address to protect your employees and business?