The freezer has been an increasingly critical tool for chefs in recent months, enabling them to continue to serve up meals to-go for immediate heating or later consumption. It will continue to play a key role in restaurant kitchens as operators look to manage fluctuations in customer demand in the months ahead and extend the use of seasonal produce as it becomes more readily available. To minimize deterioration in the quality of frozen food, make sure your staff handles to-be-frozen foods properly. FoodSafetyConnection advises using freezer bags or freezer paper for storing items, squeezing all air out of freezer bags prior to sealing, allowing hot food to cool prior to freezing, and labeling all frozen foods with the use-by date appropriate for the specific item.
In the past year, the need for supporting the local community has become more important than ever to businesses and consumers alike. If you visit your neighborhood farmer’s market in an effort to find fresh foods that elevate the quality and taste of your menu – or even to add some compelling video content to your social media accounts – just take some extra precautions to protect the safety of the items you buy. Local markets are often not subject to the same stringent food safety regulations and inspections that govern larger commercial food suppliers. Knowing your farmer always helps, but Culinary Epicenter advises you take such steps as bringing an insulated bag or cooler to the market to protect and separate items that need to stay cool, inquiring about the preparation and storage of any pre-cut items, avoiding the purchase of items like milk, juice and cider unless pasteurization can be confirmed, taking care to avoid the cross-contamination of foods, and upon your return, thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water before washing all produce.
The pandemic has changed the game for the long term when it comes to safety at restaurants. Protocols to keep people safe are no longer just in the purview of health inspectors but are also of greater interest to your customers and the general public – and an extension of the service you offer. It’s more important than ever to be able to respond knowledgeably and professionally to scrutiny and misinformation about your food safety when you are questioned about it by customers or online reviews. Support your staff by creating quizzes and contests that arm them with scientific facts they should have at their fingertips, then reward compliance. Incorporate everything from pandemic-related safety measures related to how the virus spreads, to longstanding safety measures related to handwashing, allergen safety and contamination prevention.
As of this writing, states were starting to announce changes to mask mandates and updated policies regarding how fully to open businesses. Stark differences were emerging in different regions, which may put restaurants in an awkward position in the months ahead – particularly those serving customers across state lines. Now, perhaps more than earlier in the pandemic, it’s important to scrutinize your stance on mask wearing, maintaining social distancing and other pandemic-related protocols. If your state is easing restrictions, how do you plan to manage resistance from staff and guests who are anxious about getting life back to normal? If your state is sustaining or doubling down on restrictions, how can you manage resistance from people with pandemic fatigue, knowing that your business could make news for the wrong reasons if you ease precautions prematurely? Anticipate what lines your business is unwilling to cross and how you can communicate about them in a constructive way to guests and staff alike.
If gloves have become a part of your pandemic food safety protocol, make sure your staff know how best to use them and where they can fall short, since they can introduce new risks if the wearer isn’t mindful of them. Above all, gloves can give the wearer a false sense of security, so enforce the need to avoid cross-contaminating foods and preparation areas while wearing gloves, and to wash hands with soap and water, then dry them, before and after wearing gloves. Also ensure the gloves are a proper fit, since rips or punctures could lead to contamination. Employees should change (and discard) disposable gloves between tasks, after touching hair, mouth or nose, or after four hours of use. Sturdy, reusable gloves should be washed and sanitized between tasks.
As the weather warms up, there’s nothing like the smell of an outdoor grill to bring people out for food. If you’re cooking outdoors, make sure your grill is safe to operate and that you take precautions with it throughout the season to prevent problems. The hospitality business insurer Society Insurance advises that if you’re using a propane grill, check the tank hose for cracks, holes and leaks prior to use. If you suspect a leak or smell gas while using the grill, turn it off immediately and have it serviced professionally. If you’re using a charcoal grill, use only starter fluid – no other flammable liquids – to light it and don’t apply the fluid to charcoal that has already ignited. Coals and ashes should be completely cool before you discard them, at which point they should be placed in a metal container for disposal.
COVID-19 has changed how we protect safety – and impacted consumer beliefs about the safety of indoor spaces including restaurants. A recent report in Food Safety News says while precautions like mask wearing and socially distanced seating will likely fade away with the virus, other precautions will remain. Frequent handwashing, of course, and hand sanitizer stations are here for the long haul. Beyond that, expect a general elevation of the importance of cleanliness to your brand – a need to take things a step beyond what is required in an effort to sustain consumer confidence. With every investment you make or equipment servicing you schedule, consider how well it will help you manage safety – whether it’s maintaining contactless payment and digital menus, bringing in new equipment and tools that are easier to clean, filtering the air in your facility, or managing labor in a way that considers the need for more frequent cleaning and sanitizing.
If you’re serving food in new ways – such as keeping items packaged and in a hot-holding area when you didn’t before – double-check your food safety protocols to ensure you’re protecting the foods you have available for easy and safe collection by customers. While keeping foods out of the temperature danger zone is critical, how is your food affected if you keep it out at the proper temperature for many hours at a time? A USDA advisory calls for operators to keep foods at a minimum temperature of 135°F for a maximum of eight hours, or a minimum temperature of 140°F indefinitely to protect food safety. But to maintain both safety and quality, Jonathan Deutsch, Ph.D., professor of Culinary Arts and Food Science at Drexel University, told Restaurant Business that it’s best to limit the hot holding of food to a period of between two and four hours, which may mean replenishing your supply at more regular intervals.
As spring brings warmer temperatures, outdoor dining is likely to be in greater demand once again while we wait for indoor dining rooms to open to greater capacity. Take steps now to make sure your outdoor space not only adheres to COVID-19 precautions, but also minimizes the risk of injury to employees and guests. Look for potential hazards that could cause slips, trips and falls, including stray cords, obstructed entrances and poorly lit walkways. If inclement weather is in the forecast or you have experienced snowy or icy conditions this winter, consider how your preparations will need to change – whether that means securing awnings and stakes or checking the soundness of your outdoor structures. Many operators will continue to rely on outdoor heating systems as well, so make sure flame guards are in place over open flames and that you minimize carbon monoxide by keeping your dining area adequately ventilated.
If you have managed to keep business coming in during the past year, you have likely made major shifts in how you get your food to customers – by creating a curbside pick-up service, developing and expanding upon your delivery service, or both. Has your food safety plan expanded at the same rate? At a time when off-premise sales represent a commanding portion of overall restaurant sales, your commitment to keeping your food safe for guests can’t stop at your front door. Since your standards may differ from those of other restaurants, determine how you want your particular safety values to come through to customers who are enjoying your food beyond your dining room. Trace the path of your to-go orders and anticipate potential problems: Are you using take-out containers that don’t adequately insulate foods? Not enforcing the wearing of masks on your team during curbside pick-ups? Packing bags of food that could tip over easily while in transit? Neglecting to secure containers with tamper-proof seals? Your safety protocols go far in representing your brand right now. What do your safety methods say about you?