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.
To be sure, it’s not an easy time to work in restaurants. Your staff may be feeling anxious about becoming ill or facing guests who don’t follow the restaurant’s guidelines for mask wearing and social distancing. Before the added challenge of flu season hits, make sure your policies about employee health and safety are clear – and that your staff are well aware of their own responsibilities when it comes to monitoring and reporting their symptoms, as well as how and where to get tested for the coronavirus if and when the need arises. As much as possible, prepare a backup plan for when you cannot be fully staffed. This report from the Washington Post (https://wapo.st/353BFT1) provides some precautionary accounts of the employee relations challenges some operators are facing right now.
It's more important than ever that restaurant operators convey new health and safety trainings clearly to their team. But what if team members speak English as a second language and miss some of the nuances of language that native speakers understand? Rachael Nemeth, a cofounder of ESL Works, which provides mobile-based English-as-a-second-language training, addressed this challenge in a recent Fast Casual podcast. She estimates that of the 14 million workers in the restaurant industry, one-third don’t speak English as a first language. If you employ team members who aren’t fluent English speakers, what tools or protocols do you have in place to ensure your training is achieving the desired results and no messages are missed?
In all likelihood, COVID-19 has made both your customers and employees more anxious about safety – and your customers may not fully appreciate all of the measures you and your staff have always taken to protect their health. A report from Modern Restaurant Management about the unforeseen challenges of the pandemic advises having a plan for managing both staff and customer responses to new stresses. Ensure your employees are clear on your new procedures and have been trained on how to respond to the range of new concerns they may hear from customers. Empower them to politely set boundaries with guests who demand precautions beyond the requirements of regulatory authorities. Make your expectations clear to your team about not only your service but their own health – they should know they should not ever risk coming to work while showing symptoms of illness. #foodsafety
Restaurants in many parts of the country are trying to navigate this strange in-between phase in which businesses are beginning to open and welcome customers back inside their doors. Your employees, customers and you may still be unsure about how to adequately protect everyone’s health at this stage – and people’s concerns about how to balance health and economic challenges still run the gamut. As much as you can, use clear signage at your front door and on your website homepage about your restaurant’s current safety policies and the wearing of masks indoors and when social distancing is difficult. If you are being stringent with employees about the wearing of masks, make sure you have extra masks at your front door so any unmasked person entering your restaurant can wear one too – and politely refuse service to anyone who doesn’t cooperate. It’s possible to welcome people back and emphasize how much you have missed them while also ensuring you protect your business in the ways you and your state authorities see fit.
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.
Many restaurants are having to adjust their service models right now, whether with regard to accommodating delivery where it didn’t exist before or making adjustments to the foods and the markets they serve. If you are relying on teams of volunteers to transport your food to vulnerable populations – something that may need to happen with greater frequency in the months ahead – you may want to take advantage of some free resources to ensure the safety of your food in transit. Statefoodsafety.com offers a number of them, including a free online training course to help educate volunteers in key food safety principles to ensure they transport and serve your food safely. (Access the 22-minute video course here.) (https://www.statefoodsafety.com/CustomPortal/DisasterRelief#/)
Through April 30, the National Restaurant Association is offering its ServSafe food safety training and certification program, as well as its Food Handler training program, for free. The modules also include video training on safe takeout and delivery practices. If your employees take part in the trainings, share their participation in your social media outreach to customers. While foodservice operators are used to having to take food safety precautions, the extra actions you are taking now to protect health and safety have likely never been more important to the public.
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?
When Chipotle made headlines recently for reports that its workplace practices and employee incentive programs were setting the stage for food safety risks at certain New York locations, it came as a surprise to many: In recent months, the brand has been held up as a standard-setter for food safety following its food safety overhaul, which included hiring a new food safety director and introducing such detailed steps as having two employees confirm that produce including onions, jalapeños and avocados have been immersed in hot water for five seconds to kill germs on their peels, the New York Times reported. However, a report by Delish said 47 current and former Chipotle employees came forward and reported that the brand’s pay bonus incentive program is coming at the expense of cleanliness audits and food safety – and that the restaurant is a “highly pressurized environment” for workers. How does your restaurant motivate employees to uphold your food safety practices? Creating a set time for food safety reminders each day can help reinforce your commitment to your food safety culture – and finding some light-hearted ways to do it can help too. The National Restaurant Association’s Mick Miklos told Foodservice Director that operators can set the right example by starting shifts with a food safety pop quiz for staff, for example, then rewarding the top scorers with their preferred shifts or gift cards.