Small oversights have big potential to make guests sick
When I received this story assignment, I was eager to get writing because this is a topic that I am very passionate about! In addition to the big, glaringly obvious infractions of the health code, I am a stickler about the many “small” ways we put our guests at risk without even thinking about it! But these “small” oversights have big potential to make our guests sick.
Probably the most commonly overlooked food safety red flag in many restaurants is cell phone usage on the line.
While cell phones seem like a harmless annoyance to us as owners and managers, think about how many germs live on the average cell phone. How often do our team members pull that germ-laden device out of their pockets, put it up to their faces, touch the screen, put it back in their pockets and resume food preparation without washing their hands? While mandating that employees keep their cell phones in lockers may be a battle you don’t wish to fight, putting a cell phone policy into place that states that team members must step away or outside to use their phones and wash their hands once they return can be helpful in reducing the points of contamination or even the spread of illness between team members.
Another big red flag that I see in restaurants is personal items behind the bar or in food preparation areas. Hoodies, hats and other apparel can carry a multitude of contaminants. How many of us have pets that shed, or even our own hair falls onto our clothing and when we put those garments directly onto a prep table they can deposit hair or dander onto what is supposed to be a sanitary work surface. And while it seems like a wildly rare circumstance, insects like roaches and their eggs can be transported into your restaurant on clothing and be deposited directly onto your work surfaces.
Think about your average water bottle, how many germs live not only on the mouth, straw and cap, but on the bottle itself. I am always shocked to see how many days someone re-uses the same yucky cup without washing it. If we allow our team to set drinkware on the work area, we are depositing those germs right onto the work surface. Drink vessels must have a lid which you can drink from without needing to be twisted off, flipped up or pushed in, and be made of shatterproof plastic, no glass.
I find it important to make sure your team has a place to easily store their personal items, including drinks. Ensuring that drink rails are hung near each food and beverage preparation area is an easy way to keep work areas sanitary.
Understanding that not all restaurants have room for lockers, we can still take steps to make sure there is a place to hang outerwear, bags and headwear that is tucked away from food and beverage production. Cubbies, hooks or even plastic totes on the floor can provide a place out of the way for personal item storage.
Disorganized walk-in coolers can make it challenging to follow HACCP principles for proper food storage.
At Wholly Stromboli, we practice a place for everything and everything in its place. Shelves are labeled and organized. Eggs, which are a potentially hazardous food, are always stored on the bottom shelf under the raw chicken breast, and never stored above ready-to-eat food items. By ensuring that we keep food items on the same shelf in the same slot every time, we ensure there is always a safe place to keep potentially hazardous items. For example, if I put the ham where the eggs should be, then, where do I put the eggs, one item displaces another and so on. Not only do you not know where to find anything, you risk contaminating ready-to-eat foods by not following HACCP protocols for food storage. I’ll add that consistent product placement makes stock counts a breeze. You are doing weekly stock counts, right?
Improper cooling hot food is another way for bacteria to grow and something that is easily overlooked. We’ve all seen it, your prep cook makes an 80-pound batch of marinara. He gets busy, throws the whole entire stock pot of sauce in an ice bath, and forgets all about it. Four hours later, the pot is swimming in a lukewarm bath of melted ice.
Putting an emphasis on proper cooling procedures, having a documented process and the people to carry out the process, is key!
Keeping cooling logs, and the proper thermometers where you perform ice baths with clear instructions on the cooling process will help. It can help to make one team member responsible for making sure there are always logs at the ready, they are being completed, and helping others to ensure the process is being followed.
The next place I look for potential hazards is in refrigerated prep tables and warming drawers.
I’ve never met a line cook who didn’t over fill food pans with product! It is human nature to want to cram as many canned olives as you can into that darn pan. It seems harmless, they’re just being prepared for the rush! But this is a recipe for foodborne illness. Keeping product below the fill line will ensure that all of the product in the pan is being held at the correct hot or cold holding temperature.
Don’t forget to swap out utensils such as spatulas, tongs and pizza cutters every four hours to help reduce the growth of bacteria on them. Making this a part of your shift change checklist will help ensure that this is happening at regular intervals. Additionally, if you are handling seafood, raw chicken, thick or sticky foods, consider using a fresh pair of tongs, or spoon for each dish.
Training and education is key! Make sure your team is up to date on all required certifications and training. Some counties require that each restaurant have at least one certified food handler or manager in the building at all times and will provide safe food handler courses. Additionally some broad-line distributors, community colleges and even some high school trade programs offer safe food handler certification programs at a discounted rate.
Lastly, your local health inspector can be a great resource to you and your restaurant.
Cultivating a good relationship with your inspector by inviting them to come in and do a mock inspection, provide feedback and answer questions can help ward off future violations, help you to understand how to improve your inspection scores, and ensure that you are providing a safe and healthy experience for your team and your guests.
Food Safety Resources:
Consult your local department of health and environment for latest certification requirements, cooling logs and other printed safe food handling materials.
MELISSA RICKMAN is co-founder of Wholly Stromboli in Fort Lupton, Colorado, and member of the World Pizza Champions.