“We have opted for these customized, on-site audits to provide an additional food-safety checkpoint,” Swickard says. “[The third-party agency’s] standards are sometimes stricter than the state-mandated standards, which makes us feel even more confident in our food-safety practices.”
When a quick serve understands the value of a comprehensive, 360-degree food-safety plan, it’s often an easier path to installing in-store procedures and supply-chain requirements.
Hibbert says restaurants should have written guidelines followed religiously by staff and monitored by management. Even more, those food-safety policies should be designed for stores across the system.
In line with Hibbert’s point, How Do You Roll?—which, as a sushi concept, deals with raw seafood products—maintains system-wide protocols for checking in product, defrosting items, monitoring shelf life, and conducting similar food handling activities. Stores also have standard labeling protocols that allow any team member to know when a given item was prepared and when it expires.
“This is the only way to make brand standards remain consistent,” Ross says.
At Garbanzo’s restaurants, staff avoids cross contamination by prepping the restaurant’s vegetables prior to opening. Preparing and marinating proteins is left for the end of the day, when all produce is in storage. The fast-growing Mediterranean chain is also playing to food allergies, an increasing consumer issue, with policies around changing gloves as well as using fresh utensils and food containers, Swickard says.
For any restaurant chain, a credible third-party audit can provide tangible feedback on the unit’s standard operating procedures and areas for improvement.
“With food safety, it’s about translating the simple things into a format that people can actually manage,” Theno says.
On the supply-chain side, growing brands can face a significant struggle as they enter new markets, increase their unit count, and integrate new vendors. For these brands, Prevor champions firm requirements for new vendors, assessing any candidate’s storage and distribution, and factoring food safety into the criteria on which any prospective vendor will be judged.
“This can’t just be about getting the lowest bid,” Prevor says.
While grocery chains that are facing a food-safety challenge can, and often do, pin the problem on a particular vendor and simply move a substitute product onto the shelf, restaurants cannot take such cover. As a result, restaurants need to be extra vigilant with supply-chain partners.
“If something blows up, that vendor has other customers, but what happens to you?” Theno asks.
That precise recognition has spurred leaders at How Do You Roll? and Garbanzo to take substantial steps to vet vendors. As Garbanzo imports some items from the Mediterranean region, CEO Alon Mor personally visits the company’s overseas vendors to verify that the products meet Garbanzo’s quality and safety guidelines. At How Do You Roll?, Ross says, the company has placed great emphasis on understanding vendor protocol, which provides the company confidence in the seafood’s path from catch into its kitchens.
Given the farm-to-fork ideology that has swept the restaurant industry in recent years, supply-chain standards today have added importance with fresh produce. Unlike proteins such as meat and chicken, produce has no built-in kill step to destroy pathogens.
With nearly 60 percent of its food purchases being produce, Garbanzo has incorporated systems through its distributors to track produce, trace issues back to the grower, and activate a recall plan as necessary.
Since walking a vendor’s tomato fields is not a realistic venture for many quick-service leaders, even those prioritizing food safety, Prevor says, one potential solution for smaller brands might be to establish contacts with the suppliers of well-known national names like McDonald’s, Disney, Darden, and others with high-quality food-safety programs.
“Piggyback off of them,” Prevor says. “These companies have tremendous reputational risk and are more than likely getting the safest products that can be obtained.”
Another shrewd move would be monitoring proposed regulations from the FDA, Hibbert says. By getting ahead of the regulatory structure, restaurants can seek out vendors who already fall in line, or compel existing suppliers to improve their processes.
“If you understand where the FDA is trying to go, then you can take a hard look at your operation and address the necessary areas,” Hibbert says, adding that savvy operators will also review specific target areas and local and state food-safety requirements.
“It’s simply smart business for restaurants to understand any special characteristics in a particular jurisdiction,” Hibbert says.
Theno is intimately aware of the turmoil and tragedy food-safety negligence can trigger. He urges restaurant operators big and small to reflect on their food-safety programs, as well as their individual responsibilities to safeguard guest health.
“Are you doing all that you can and should to protect the guests that walk through your doors?” Theno asks.