What you need to know before your restaurant’s next health inspection
It’s coming, though few pizzerias know when.
The health inspection is a regular event on every restaurant’s calendar and while some of the nation’s restaurant operators have the advantageous ability to schedule their health inspection, most do not. An inspector shows up, randomly, with a checklist in hand to ensure compliance with safety and sanitation guidelines.
For pizzerias, the inspector’s arrival can be a pulse-raising experience, as health inspection reports are, in many municipalities, easily found matters of public record that can affect a brand’s reputation and sway dining decisions. (Last March, it’s worth noting, Yelp announced a partnership with Hazel Analytics to post publicly available health department data on its review platform, a move simplifying heath inspection data discovery for millions of Americans.)
“While a health inspection is a ‘snapshot’ of the day and time of the inspection, the inspection results leave a lasting impression on the establishment,” says Francine L. Shaw, who regularly consults and trains foodservice establishments on food safety as the CEO of Savvy Food Safety and TracSavvy.
To be certain, a 100 percent health inspection mark is tough to achieve since various minor infractions, such as leaving a cloth or tongs on a table, are often little more than harmless, honest blunders. Nevertheless, acing the health inspection remains a worthy pursuit given the potential consequences of a lackluster inspection and the expectations the public holds for safe and properly run foodservice establishments.
The path to a healthier health inspection
Lars Johnson, the head of FoodSafetyGuy, a Minnesota-based consultancy specializing in food safety training, says the pursuit of an improved health inspection score “begins the day of your last inspection.” He urges operators to note every violation, immediately fix the error and create a plan to prevent the same violation from occurring again.
To wit: a pizzeria on Chicago’s North Side went from having 10 violations in March 2020 to seven violations in April 2021, addressing issues such as allergen training and proper date marking by the time its 2021 inspection rolled around. In its April 2022 inspection, the pizzeria improved further and passed without any violations.
Remediation often includes a mix of instituting new practices and policies as well as staff training. For instance, management might begin supplying gloves at the cut table to eliminate barehand contact with ready-to-eat foods, issue a policy to change out scoops and ladles every four hours to reduce the risk of bacteria growth or alter how it stores pizza boxes and to-go containers, which are food contact surfaces that should be treated like plates.
In addition, Johnson suggests every restaurant has a certified food protection manager on staff. Though such certifications require an investment from ownership, Johnson says the risk of food illness issues falls with personnel on staff who have received next-level training on food protection measures.
Focus on the big ones
Health inspectors often center their attention on a few key areas posing an imminent danger to the public, namely food from unsafe sources, inadequate cooking, improper holding temperatures, contaminated equipment and poor personal hygiene. As such, these should be particularly high-priority areas for restaurants as well.
Shaw recommends using checklists, opening checklists, temperature logs, calibration logs, closing lists, cleaning charts and compliance certification apps to institutionalize safety around these important issues. As opposed to verbal instructions given during the first days of training, formal, concrete and consistent practices help create a culture of safety and compliance.
“The more organized and proactive an organization can be, the better its chance of success,” Shaw says.
Resist viewing inspectors as enemies
Quite often, Shaw says, restaurants view their health inspector as an adversary, someone who takes pride in finding errors and slapping violations on an establishment. In her experience, which includes 26 years as a restaurant operating partner, Shaw finds most health inspectors want successful operators. In fact, the best inspectors educate as they inspect, which allows operators a chance to better understand food safety measures and, in some cases, immediately rectify issues to receive a higher updated score.
“Many people get so nervous during an inspection that they forget they can correct the violations as they walk through the assessment,” Shaw says. “If a product doesn’t have a label on it, label it. If a [temperature] is too low, either throw the product away or heat it to the correct temp.”
In addition, Johnson urges pizzerias to run a clean and organized facility that makes it easy for inspectors to evaluate what they need to evaluate and get out.
“Don’t waste the inspector’s time,” Johnson says.
As a restaurant operating partner, Shaw looked forward to visits from the health inspector, seeing them as a challenge to prove she was leading an organized, credible establishment.
“Validation, I suppose,” she says.
Unfortunately, she finds too many operators do not feel the same. They view health inspectors as devilish souls intent on stirring trouble, not as individuals who safeguard public health and actually protect the pizzeria’s business. Exposing a potential food safety risk, after all, can help a restaurant avoid a temporary closure and significant brand damage.
“Health inspections can help identify areas where a restaurant can improve, decreasing food safety risks to their employees, guests and communities,” Shaw says.
Each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 48 million people in the U.S. get sick from foodborne diseases. Of those, some 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
“These numbers are staggering and 100 percent preventable,” Shaw says. “No one should be getting sick or dying from eating food.”
So, for as much as a health inspection is about self-preservation for a pizzeria, it’s ultimately about human safety and respect for others. It offers every establishment an opportunity to improve its craft, better serve its customers and drive sustainable operations.
And of the quest to earn a perfect health inspection score, Johnson surmises: “It has to do with pride, determination and management expectations.”
Daniel P. Smith Chicago-based writer has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.