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Ann Holtzapple
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08.10.20

Restaurant Food Safety: Getting Back to Business During COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis took us all by surprise. Now, as restaurants are reopening or preparing to reopen in the tenuous landscape, many owners and operators are wondering how to recoup and recover. Adhering to best practices for everything from restarting equipment after the extended shutdown to properly communicating with your community members can get you off to the best start. 

Here’s a closer look at what restaurants should know about restaurant food safety and getting back to business in the new normal. 

Extended Shutdown and Restart Instructions for Equipment

Some restaurants have managed to stay operational during COVID through takeout, pickup and delivery. Others were forced to close their doors entirely due to safety or budgetary reasons. While opening up a restaurant is challenging at any time, we are in unfamiliar territory. In many cases, restaurant equipment has been sitting idle for weeks and months. Restarting it after this long period of downtime requires special care and consideration.

To help you understand how to safely restart your Vulcan cooking equipment after a long shutdown period, we’ve compiled comprehensive extended restart instructions for charbroilers, combi ovens, convection ovens, fryers, griddles, heated holding equipment, steamers and ranges and broilers

And while we hope that restaurants and business continue to stay open, we also know that it’s prudent to plan for the worst while hoping for the best. In that spirit, our guidelines also include instructions on how to prepare your equipment for an extended shutdown period should a COVID-19 resurgence or other crisis mandate future closures. 

One general rule of thumb for extended shutdown and restart of restaurant equipment? Always consult the manufacturer’s Installation & Operation manual for your specific model. Find them in our Resource Center

During your preparations for reopening, you should also inspect and discard all expired food products, rearrange coolers and freezers to reduce contact during deliveries and clean and sanitize all shelving, tools and wares. 

Keeping Your Staff Safe and Satisfied

The safety imperative is not new in the hospitality industry. In fact, keeping employees and diners safe has always been top priority for restaurants. In the COVID era, however, safety is more critical than ever. The first place to start when it comes to safety? Your staff. 

According to the FDA, best practices for reducing transmission among your community include the use of personal prevention practices (PPP) and personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks and face coverings. Additionally, employees should practice the “six feet rule” of social distancing whenever possible. Temperature taking and other pre-screening measures; frequent cleaning and disinfection of workspaces and equipment, with a focus on high touch surfaces; and employee self-monitoring are also guidelines for restaurants set forth by the CDC. 

Additionally, employees with symptoms associated with COVID-19 should report them to their supervisors and stay home, as should those who have no symptoms but have a known exposure to COVID-19.

The National Restaurant Association has also set forth requirements for coronavirus mitigation based on the FDA Food Code, including the following:

  • Sick employees should be prohibited from the workplace
  • Strong procedures and practices for cleaning and sanitizing should be in place
  • Strict handwashing practices should be taught, required and enforced
  • A certified food safety manager should be on site at all times during operating hours
  • Indeed, the world calls for new policies regarding wellness checks, sick leave, back-up staffing plans and staff training. 

Lastly, working in the restaurant industry can be stressful even during periods of normalcy. Because these times are uniquely uncertain, the CDC also highlights the importance of supporting, coping and resilience.  Strategies include promoting healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, and making time for rest and relaxation; encouraging employees to talk over their feelings with trusted people; and making available contact information for the national distress hotline: 1-800-985-5990 (or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746). 

Maintaining Consumer Confidence

Getting your restaurant up and running again isn’t just a matter of protecting your employees and diners. It’s also about instilling consumer confidence: What can you do to assure customers that they’re returning to an environment that has taken the necessary safety steps? Perhaps Mandy Sedlak, food safety and public health manager for Ecolab’s Ecosure division, put it best in telling NRN, “Guests will not only expect to ‘be safe,’ they will want to ‘see safe’.”

Knowing and sticking to best practices as set forth by the proper authorities is a vital first step. In addition to the guidelines for staff safety set forth above, customer-facing safety measures include the following:

  • Avoiding the use of reusable shared items, such as menus and condiments
  • Using touchless payment options as much as possible
  • Using disposable food service items
  • Ensuring that ventilation systems are operating properly to increase circulation of outdoor air 
  • Modifying your restaurant layouts so that all parties are separated by at least six feet
  • Limiting seating capacity
  • Prioritizing outside seating as well as drive-through, curbside takeout and other delivery options 
  • Asking customers to wait in their cars while waiting to pick up food or be seated
  • Implementing order-ahead options for dine-in customers
  • Avoiding self-serve food and drink options, such as drink stations and salad bars; 
  • Installing physical barriers and guides, such as sneeze guards and floor tape
  • Closing shared spaces, such as break rooms

These changes aren’t enough in and of themselves, however. You must let your customers know what you’ve done and what you’re doing to create safe dining experiences. Posting signage in highly visible locations promoting everyday protective measures is an effective way to demonstrate that safety is front of mind. 

Additionally, proactively sharing information about your plans and efforts with your community members, including vendors, staff, and customers can go a long way toward rebuilding trust and loyalty. Email blasts, your website, and social media accounts are all useful ways to get the word out. 

QSR magazine shared several strategies for communicating with your constituents about coronavirus, including the following: practicing transparency and honesty; speaking from your values; under-promising and over-delivering while adjusting to the “new normal;” avoid acting like a public health authority and instead share information from third-party experts, such as the FDA and the CDC; and keep messaging simple. 

One last thing to keep in mind? None of the information shared here is meant to replace local, state, or domestic safety laws, rules and regulations. As such, it’s critical to ensure that your restaurant is compliant with those, as well.  

“We are all guests, managers, employees, families and friends navigating through and toward our new normal,” continues Sedlak. While no one expects restaurant reopenings to be seamless in the wake of COVID-19, the more owners and managers educate themselves about the steps to opening a restaurant during coronavirus—and the more readily they share information on their efforts with their community members—the better positioned they’ll be to survive and thrive. 

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