After being sequestered in their homes for months due to COVID-19, consumers are reemerging with a hunger to dine out again. Restaurants are happy to welcome guests but are still reeling from massive changes imposed by the pandemic. Whether reopening dining rooms after extended closures or finding their footing in a world of new omnichannel ordering, quick service restaurant and fast casual managers are grappling with evolving rules and regulations, changing diner preferences and an entirely new workforce.

Amidst new challenges, guidelines and expectations, restaurants continue to have the critical responsibility of offering sanitary eating spaces and food preparation practices that help prevent diners from getting foodborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 48 million people get sick and 3,000 die each year from foodborne illness in the United States alone. As restaurant managers endeavor to overcome challenges of operating during a pandemic, here are six tips for elevating food safety.

Train, train, and train againIn a recent survey, 84 percent of restaurant operators said staffing levels were lower than normal. Restaurants are scrambling to staff their operations and many employees are new to retail foodservice. These employees may not be aware of the dangers of foodborne illnesses or basic food safety protocols. For this reason, restaurants should completely reboot their food safety programs, beginning with basics of safe food handling and foodborne illness. Repetition is a good way to reinforce the importance of food safety, and it may be beneficial to provide multiple training videos, pose questions on food safety during the interview and training process and include food safety on periodic employee reviews. Employee infractions should result in retraining. This level of repetition instills the importance of this issue.

Leverage technologyThere is technology available to support food safety best practices. Internet of Things (IoT) temperature devices can monitor hot and cold food holding and service areas, instantly alerting managers when temperatures fall outside an acceptable range. Hand washing monitors help guide employees in proper handwashing techniques. Touchless technologies like digital displays in the back of the house reduce transmission risk from employees handling food. If particular areas have presented a problem in the past, identify technologies that can support best practices for improved compliance and results.

Build a culture of food safetyIn organizations with a culture of food safety, everyone from the corporate CEO to the manager and janitorial staff feels accountable. Everyone understands the consequences of failure to follow proper protocols. Managers take all food safety infractions seriously and immediately take corrective action. They commend a “see something, say something” attitude among employees, providing incentives and rewards for employees that take action with regard to food safety. Parent companies emphasize the importance of food safety with resources, training and incentives. Everyone must be observant and understand that doing the right thing to protect the integrity of food quality is not just a matter of “not getting caught,” but a matter of pride and responsibility.

Partner with a third partyRestaurants with excellent food safety records are those that don’t wait to evaluate their food safety practices until the annual FDA inspection occurs. A surprising number of establishments use the FDA inspection as a gauge of their food safety performance. Unfortunately, this practice is like failing to study for the final exam. Once the FDA inspection occurs, the results are public. And while it’s never too late to take corrective action, the location and brand may suffer the stigma of being “unclean.” Consider using a third-party auditor who can provide regular assessments, allowing for improvements prior to FDA inspections. This not only increases the likelihood of a more favorable rating, but it may also help ensure that best practices are in place across all locations, regardless of geographic location or presiding health department.

Audit every storeEvery owner/operator or manager is different, and employee profiles may differ depending on the location. Left unverified, the rigor of food safety practices may simply rest on the personal conviction of a single location manager, rendering it completely inconsistent across locations. It is critical that management audit each individual store for compliance with food safety best practices.

Have emergency response plans in placeUnfortunately, some emergencies are simply unavoidable. However, there is plenty a food facility can do to prepare for unexpected circumstances and potentially avoid food contamination that may occur as a result. Having an emergency plan, and then training for and rehearsing the plan, can help with proper mitigation of the threats of potential contamination.

Return to the joy of dining out—safely

Quick-service restaurants, fast casual, and restaurants of every type have successfully weathered 2020, reinventing food delivery options, overcoming supply chain disruptions and adopting new measures and processes to keep employees and diners safe. Their resilience and tenacity are impressive. As the industry returns to a new normal, it’s important to keep beneficial practices that have occurred as a result of the pandemic. More frequent cleaning, increased hand washing and the transition to contactless service all help create a cleaner dining environment. However, it’s also important to reinstate food safety as a critical priority to deliver confidence to diners and the community. With safe dining environments, we’ll all return to the joy of eating out.

Michael Sperber serves as Global Business Manager for UL Everclean, a leading third-party retail food safety and sanitation audit program designed to help retail foodservice businesses optimize their food safety practices.

Food Safety, Outside Insights, Story