Each month, Loay Alhindi conducts a safety audit at all six California locations of Sajj Mediterranean to ensure employees are following the company’s strict standards for preparing sajj, pita, falafel, and shawarma.
Playing the part of a health department inspector, he checks food temperatures and surveys the cleanliness of the prep area. He watches the team fulfill orders.
It’s just one example of the lengths the Middle Eastern concept goes to ensure the safety of its products. Another is the use of a central commissary to prepare ingredients, which ensures handling is kept to a minimum and restaurant staff doesn’t have to cut up raw meat.
“We send it already processed, marinated just to be finished in the store,” says Alhindi, director of food and executive chef at Sajj. “They have to cut the onions and cut the tomatoes in store. That’s about it.”
Alhindi says this structure costs more in overhead—after all, it requires an entirely separate space—but he believes it’s worth the investment. Preparing all the ingredients store by store could be less expensive, but Alhindi says the controlled environment of Sajj’s commissary is safer.
Plus, a central component delivers an added benefit. “It’s one of the major things that keeps our food consistent. When you have one commissary, you have one recipe,” he says. “The finishing part is the easiest part. They just have to follow the cooking instructions.”
With a menu built around fresh ingredients, Alhindi knows he must handle the company’s fresh meats and produce with care. But the inventory at Sajj is limited; rather than dozens of SKUs, produce orders generally include only tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, lettuce, and herbs.
Alhindi is convinced that small, local farms (whose foods often cost more than high-volume suppliers) can offer more protection against food-safety problems. Also, he can visit those operations to see how the producers grow, harvest, handle, and deliver products.
“We always go around and have a look at the facilities to make sure they are handling the produce right and delivering it right,” he says. “It costs us, but it’s safer.”
After Chipotle suffered multiple rounds of foodborne illness outbreaks in 2015, experts quickly poked holes in the chain’s reliance on fresh ingredients and complex supply chain. The burrito chain has often held up its supply chain as a central thread to its Food With Integrity pledge. But smaller farms sometimes lack the safety resources of larger, industrial operations. A vast network of suppliers also makes it operationally challenging for brands to keep tabs on all the different products coming in from so many places.
Indeed, produce-heavy concepts face some unique food-safety costs compared with fast-food chains that rely heavily on frozen or processed foods. But oftentimes those costs come from the particular operational constraints of working with fresh ingredients, says Chris Boyles, vice president for the Steritech Institute at Steritech, which conducts food-safety and operational assessments.
Washing, chopping, dicing, and shredding fresh fruits and vegetables can take more time and result in increased labor costs, he says. Alternatively, buying pre-cut or pre-prepped produce can save labor but comes at a higher cost.
“There’s a balancing act to be had between labor and operational costs for a plant-based food operation and food safety,” says Boyles, who holds degrees in biology and microbiology, as well as a food-safety credential from the National Environmental Health Association. “There are considerations to be made and what is best for one operation may not be for another.”
While those costs can add up, he notes that consumers increasingly demand healthy, fresh options. And those additional investments in food safety are often well worth it. As Boyles points out, the upfront cost of added food-safety measures pales in comparison to the cost a foodborne illness can wreak on a brand. “Fresh produce can be managed safely, just like any other food, so there is no reason to limit its use to reduce risk,” he says.
Owners of Maui-based Fork & Salad use a mix of big restaurant suppliers and small, local farms to build their fresh salads and sandwiches. Jaron Blosser, one of the brand’s three chef-owners, says big companies like Sysco have their supply chains down to a science to guard against safety problems. On the smaller side, Blosser and the other owners vet and visit local farms to ensure their safety processes are up to par.
“We just made personal relationships with these farmers, and we know their standards,” he says. “It does seem like a lot of work, but we’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s not that bad.”
Company leaders plan to expand Fork & Salad beyond its two Hawaii locations. As they look to move onto the mainland, they’re moving slowly and paying close attention to the supply chain. The rapid growth of Chipotle was another oft-cited factor for that brand’s foodborne illness outbreaks; the quicker and larger it grew, the harder it was to keep track of the growing network of farms and suppliers.
“They have that stigma attached to them now, and it’s the fear of every big company,” Boyles says.
The Fork & Salad team plans to use a “Whole Foods approach,” dividing the U.S. into regions and meticulously choosing farms in each to supply new stores there.
Though this sourcing strategy costs more up front, the company says it pays off in the long run, both with added food-safety protections and a better-quality product.
“It’s cost versus revenue. I think there will be some more costs involved in checking this out,” Boyles says. “Revenue is where we’re going to see that cost go down because we’re sourcing better produce. People are tasting that product, and it’s going to drive revenue for us and the farm.”