Even in the midst of mass unemployment and deep uncertainty, restaurants that have found a way to remain open are somehow continuing to make their customers and communities feel cared for. But what about caring for the restaurant employees who are taking the risk of coming to work and serving the public right now? Or the millions of others who are currently out of work? Challenges to employees’ physical, mental and financial health abound right now. There are ventures springing up throughout the country to help. Efforts like Furlough Kitchen and HospitALLity House are helping to address hunger by providing free meals to laid-off hospitality workers. A charity organization called No Us Without You launched in Los Angeles to help undocumented restaurant workers in the city. Restaurant Careers and Hospitality Relief Dashboard are offering leads on grants, interim work and other assistance. Finally, a list of resources, https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2020/health/coronavirus-how-to-help/#restaurants-and-food-workers, from CNN includes links to other sources of support for restaurants and food workers, as well as suggestions for communities looking to help the industry right now.
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?
Many restaurant operators managing the stress of rebuilding business are encountering an extra challenge: how to ease their employees’ anxiety about everything from wearing face masks during service to handling guests who aren’t respecting your new safety procedures. People who are comfortable in their work environment are more effective employees – and are more likely to stay employed with you too. A Restaurant Business report (https://bit.ly/2XgBuQd) highlights efforts a number of operators are taking to ensure employees get the emotional support they need, as well as the training required to handle current stresses. When in doubt, communicate with your team – by regularly surveying them about what’s working and what isn’t, giving them a point of contact and other resources to turn to at any time with concerns, and using tech-based communication platforms to help keep them informed about what’s happening with your business each day.
Restaurants are used to having to protect food safety and minimize the chances of employee illness transmission and injury on the job, but the current situation requires extra precautions. First, ensure your staff is clear on your new protocols, and provide any new rules verbally and in print, and in different languages as needed. When you need to talk as a group or exchange documents, use technology as much as possible to limit in-person interactions. Within your establishment in both the front and back of house, make it easier to follow social distancing protocols and avoid congregating by marking off areas on the floor to separate people, tables and preparation areas. Take extra care with your handwashing stations to ensure they are well stocked – scrubbing with regular soap is the best defense against the spread of both the coronavirus and foodborne pathogens. Finally, make sure your team knows you take safety seriously: It’s a given that if they are sick or show symptoms of illness, they should not feel pressured or incentivized to work. But what’s your protocol if employees have recently been in contact with an infected person but have tested negative themselves? Anticipating your responses to such questions can help protect your team and business.
As restaurants and other businesses reopen and people gather in greater numbers, there is a risk of increased cases of Covid-19. Your cleaning practices, cleaning materials and labor scheduling plan needs to keep pace with the new environment. Chris Boyles, vice president of food safety at Steritech, told Restaurant Dive that cleaning costs will look different for restaurants now. For example: Do you have sufficient staff on hand to carry out your enhanced cleaning procedures? Are you using disinfectants that have been approved by the EPA for use against COVID-19? If one of your employees tests positive for the virus and you need to close your premises for cleaning, what will it cost to hire a third-party disinfection service if required? Anticipating these costs and planning for them may help you avoid having to pay more than needed as you ensure your business is clean and ready to serve guests.
After you deliver food safety training to your staff, how much time passes before they put the lessons to use? Ecolab’s Bob Sherwood says his company has found that humans will forget 75 percent of the new information they acquire unless they use it within the first week of learning it. He suggests using a 70-20-10 rule for helping training lessons stick: 10 percent of the learning should be reserved for more formal classroom settings, 20 percent for conversations and other social interactions, and 70 percent for the application of lessons on the job. Do you have training mechanisms in place – whether through tech tools or in-person lessons – that ensure your staff apply new knowledge soon after they learn it?
Does your kitchen team understand their responsibility to prevent foodborne illness and when to report to management any symptoms they experience that could be connected to it? As the FDA’s Employee Health and Personal Hygiene Handbook details, it’s important your staff appreciates the relationship between their job and the potential risks of foodborne illness, as well as how their health relates to it. If they experience symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, sore throat accompanied by fever, a diagnosed illness caused by a big-five pathogen or simply exposure to such a pathogen, or an exposed or infected cut or wound on their hands or arms, they need to report their symptoms to a manager immediately. (If their symptoms are from a non-infectious condition, such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel disease, some liver diseases or pregnancy, they can continue to work if they show medical documentation that their symptoms are non-infectious.) Your team should also be aware of how restriction or exclusion from working with food can prevent foodborne illness and how proper hand hygiene and no bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food can prevent foodborne illness.
Protecting food safety at your restaurant isn’t merely about training. It’s about ensuring that food safety is as embedded in your values as the people you hire and the ingredients you purchase. When Francine Shaw, president of Food Safety Training Solutions, consults with restaurants about food safety, she pinpoints nine key pieces that build such a culture: First, start at the top. It must be clear to everyone that those running the business insist on safety. Then explain the why behind your rules – Why must we make sure poultry is cooked and served at the proper temperature? What could happen if we served it to a guest? Your training needs to be ongoing and involve everyone from your newest to most senior staff. Stock your kitchen with appropriate tools, such as calibrated food thermometers and separate cutting boards for different categories of food and allergens. Monitor and record the temperature of foods at different times. Conduct inspections – of food to ensure it’s safe upon arrival, and of employees charged with following protocols. Play it extra safe with allergens, double checking ingredients and using allergy-safe preparation tools. Finally, help employees appreciate how careless mistakes – like wearing an apron to the restroom or forgetting to wash hands – can cause a food safety hazard.
In the midst of cold and flu season, is your employee health policy equipped to handle illness safely and also keep your business running smoothly? Make sure you have a clear protocol on different health conditions and which actions they require. This chart from Statefoodsafety.com may be helpful to post, though your policy might be more stringent if you serve highly susceptible populations. Set procedures for reporting illness, as well as a back-up plan for staffing when you need substitutions, whether you keep your regular pool of employees on standby in case you need them, or if you’re using services like Jitjatjo to hire substitute workers at the last minute.
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.