Holiday gatherings and buffets go hand-in-hand – well, they did until 2020. If you have served food buffet-style in the past, you have no doubt reinvented it for the current environment or replaced it altogether. If you’re still offering this service in some form, consider these precautions to help protect safety: Have your staff (wearing PPE) serve each guest and provide new dishes and cutlery. Enforce social distancing and mask-wearing for guests waiting in line. Serve items in self-contained, miniature form. Provide the option of a scaled-down buffet sampler for each table to avoid having guests circulate – or even offer a “buffet in a box” take-away option. Have staff (again wearing PPE) circulate with trays carrying pre-portioned items, cocktail-party style, that they can serve to each table. Buffets are like a kid-in-a-candy-store kind of experience. How can you replicate that feeling while protecting everyone’s safety?
If, before the pandemic, your restaurant generated most of its business through dining room sales as opposed to through off-premise sales, your staff may be used to communicating far differently about your menu. If your team was near-perfect when it came to suggesting substitutes and communicating about allergens during conversations at a guest’s table, have you found a new system for replicating those communications as effectively either electronically or during the shorter in-person interactions that are common now? As the National Restaurant Association reports, the increase in off-premise sales and the decline in on-premise sales mean your servers don’t have as direct of an opportunity to discuss food allergies and sensitivities. So it’s important (and, in some locations, required) to update your allergen profiles as your recipes change – and to make sure that information is readily accessible in written form – on your website, app, or at your restaurant for those who order food in person. That’s especially true to remember as you update your menu for a new season or substitute new ingredients due to shortages.
Even during pre-pandemic times, menus were among the dirtiest items in a restaurant. How you present your menu now can not only make a difference to the safety of your business, but also send a message to your community about how you are protecting their health right now. If you can, opt for chalkboard or digital menus that can be adjusted as needed and don’t need to be discarded after each use (like paper menus). If you use laminated menus that can be cleaned, follow the proper precautions: Food Safety News advises cleaning and disinfecting them after each use with a soft cloth, separating used menus from clean, avoiding harsh chemicals or submerging menus in water, and letting menus dry completely before reuse. One alternative to this in your dining room is posting each side of your menu under glass on each table for easy viewing and cleanup.
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.
In recent months, E. coli contamination has been responsible for dozens of serious illnesses – and that’s in romaine lettuce alone. Could your menu choices help minimize your chances of purchasing contaminated produce? Every year, the Environmental Working Group releases updated lists of the produce most commonly exposed to pesticides and other chemicals, along with produce that has tested to be the cleanest. Food News reports that these items made this year’s Clean 15 fruits and vegetables: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, onions, papayas, eggplants, asparagus, kiwis, cabbages, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms and honeydew melons. Can any of these ingredients be substituted for others on your menu?
How confident are you in your restaurant’s food allergy management? According to a recent study of 500 hospitality workers by the software provider Fourth, one in six respondents claimed they had not received regular training or updates with regard to managing guest allergies, Big Hospitality reports. Further, among 1,000 consumers also polled as part of the survey, 36 percent of respondents said their last restaurant meals contained ingredients not listed on the menu. The survey was conducted as a prelude to the 2021 implementation of Natasha’s Law, which will require packaged foods sold on-site at restaurants in the UK to be labeled with a full list of the ingredients they contain. (It was passed after Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died after eating a Pret a Manger sandwich that didn’t list an allergen it contained.) While the law will initially apply only to businesses in England, it offers some lessons on how businesses everywhere must change following a food allergy incident: Pret a Manger has overhauled its food allergy program and renovated its facilities in the wake of Ednan-Laperouse’s death.
Planning on serving turkey at your holiday gatherings? Make sure your kitchen staff doesn’t wash the turkey during preparation. As the Safe Plates Food Safety Information Center reports, washing a turkey in the sink can spread harmful bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter up to three feet away. To prevent the spread of bacteria, clean and sanitize any utensils and surfaces used during preparation, wash hands before and after handling raw turkey, and cook it to a temperature of 165˚F.
If you offer grab-and-go foods, adhering to food safety procedures can be especially difficult. The food auditor Steritech found a number of common food safety issues in 3,000 recent reviews of fresh and prepared foods at grocery stores. Their lessons can also apply to restaurants offering prepared foods to go. Of the problems Steritech discovered, several stood out: One major issue across the board was unclean food contact surfaces, particularly when businesses offer a wide range of prepared foods that require the use of more utensils, equipment and prep areas. Further, contamination via chemical, physical and/or biological hazards was among the top food safety challenges in all departments except produce. Specifically, allergen contamination was a pressing concern for bakery items (demonstrating the need for clear labeling) and improper storage and placement of raw items was an issue in meat, seafood and deli products. Finally, cold holding was among the top problems for produce, seafood, deli and general grocery items – with the principal issue being the temperature of display cases for pre-cut and prepared foods. Make sure these foods are kept at a temperature of 41 degrees or below to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.
It may take a crisis to make a restaurant enhance its food safety practices ― but other operators can learn from the outcomes whether they experienced it or not. Case in point: A year after the death of a woman who ate a mislabeled baguette from the quick-service brand Pret-a-Manger, the brand developed a five-point allergy plan. The plan has involved revamping Pret-a-Manger’s labels using new technology to detail all ingredients, launching additional training for 9,000 staff, providing menu tablets in every store that detail product ingredients, removing allergens from products and publishing a quarterly food safety incident report. The plan has required making physical modifications to store preparation areas as well.
If you still use manual processes to track ingredients and recipes, be aware of how they can impact your operation’s food safety. For example, a team member who knows one version of a dish well may not know how a dish is altered to accommodate a food allergy if your processes aren’t automated. Restaurant Business advises you consider menu engineering technology to help automate these processes and keep your menu’s ingredient and nutritional information in step with modifications you need to make on the fly. For example, as you create dishes or adjust existing ones, technology can automatically update their allergens and nutritional values down to the ingredient level. It will help ease communication between your team and the guest, as well as give your chef time and freedom to focus on enhancing the menu.