These pandemic-related changes aren't going anywhere.
COVID-19 has completely changed businesses across all industries, and the foodservice industry is no exception. For months, restaurants and other food businesses were unable to serve guests onsite due to stay-at-home orders and other virus-related restrictions. Once they were allowed to reopen, restaurants had to manage new rules about restricting crowds and limiting onsite capacity. They had to be creative with reduced indoor seating, setting up socially distanced tables, providing outside dining options, and ramping up take-out and delivery options for people who still were wary about onsite dining.
In addition, restaurants needed to implement CDC protocols around COVID-19, which meant they had to elevate cleaning and disinfecting, implement social distancing, wear personal protective equipment (PPE), etc. This is, of course, in addition to implementing other food safety procedures, such as not cross-contaminating, cooking foods to proper temperatures, holding foods correctly, etc.
This global health pandemic is like nothing we’ve ever experienced before and adjusting to these new rules was scary, overwhelming, and disruptive for many (not to mention costly while sales were plummeting.) Now, six-plus months into the crisis, basic COVID-19 protocols—washing hands, frequent disinfecting, practicing social distancing, wearing face masks, and following other CDC guidelines—have become standard operating procedure for restaurants and other food businesses.
Expect COVID-related changes to be long-term. In addition to the practices listed above, implement the following in your restaurant to manage safety and mitigate risks in our new normal:
Demonstrate that you’re operating safely. Many consumers remain wary about dining out due to the ongoing fear of contracting COVID-19. Recent reports that link eating in restaurants with an increased risk of contracting coronavirus are certainly not going to help dispel consumers’ concerns. Demonstrate—through words and actions—that your establishment is safe. Allow customers to see your employees cleaning and disinfecting regularly, keeping proper social distance from others, wearing PPE, etc. so they understand that you’re following proper protocols. Communicate—in person, through social media, via signage and media interviews—that you’re taking every precaution to keep employees, guests, and your communities safe. If customers and prospects don’t trust that you’re prioritizing safety, they won’t give you their business.
Prioritize training. Food safety training was essential before the pandemic hit, and now ongoing training should be a top priority. Educate every employee about food safety rules, as well as COVID-19 protocols. Make training part of each new employee’s onboarding process. Emphasize that following safety rules and COVID regulations is non-negotiable. Ensure compliance. Take immediate corrective actions if/when employees aren’t following protocols. Provide reminders via onsite signage, e-mail, messages on employees’ smartphones, pre-shift meetings, and “refresher” training sessions.
Develop safer ways to serve food. Buffets, salad bars, and “family style dining” are no longer considered safe, due to the possibility of people transmitting coronavirus through respiratory droplets on serving utensils, contact surfaces, or due to close proximity. Instead, provide single-use condiment packets versus shared bottles. Serve individual meals versus “family style” shared platters. Offer “contactless” pick up options, where guests pre-pay and pick up their food from a socially distanced location.
Utilize digital tools. It has never been more critical to track inspections, self-audits, and other safety and quality measures. Yet, ironically, it’s challenging to secure third-party inspections right now due to logistics like travel restrictions. Therefore, restaurants must pivot to self-inspections to ensure compliance with all critical safety protocols. Use digital tools to get a broader, more holistic view across your business—whether you have one unit or dozens. Tech tools can instantly, accurately provide data about various safety and quality initiatives, allowing you to easily identify (and fix) problems before they become liabilities. Paper systems simply don’t provide the same broad views, plus there’s a huge risk for human error and lost documentation associated with paper records.
Expand your roster of suppliers. Supply chains have been disrupted by the pandemic, and food businesses may not be able to consistently secure necessary products. It’s important to continue supporting your regular suppliers—especially local companies and farms that are likely struggling due to the economic impact of this crisis. However, it’s wise to expand your roster of vendors—and vet them for quality and safety criteria—to ensure an ongoing and safe supply of products.
Update your crisis plan. We never envisioned a crisis like COVID-19 that would sicken (and kill) so many, and completely change the way businesses operate. This pandemic reinforced the need for businesses to have updated crisis management plans in place. This plan should identify the crisis team (person in charge, spokesperson, legal representative, etc.) and emergency personnel (e.g., police, fire, ambulance, local health department, etc.) with all contact information compiled. While the specific messaging will depend on the particular incident, most of your plan can (and should) be created in advance of a crisis.
While we all hoped that COVID-19 was going to be a short-term inconvenience, it’s become very clear that it’s a long-term problem, and we all must adapt accordingly. Just as you’ve implemented food safety procedures, the new COVID-19 protocols should be part of your restaurant’s ongoing safety plans. While this feels like a scary, uncertain, overwhelming, and frustrating time, remember there are things we can control, like our safety protocols and our commitment to keeping employees and guests healthy. This should be our top priority—during and after this pandemic.
Francine L. Shaw is considered by many as the preeminent voice for food safety and education in the foodservice industry. Through her company, Savvy Food Safety, Inc., Francine provides world-class brands with food safety education, COVID-19 response plans, collaboration on the creation of digital food safety and COVID-19 digital platforms, crisis management, consulting, HACCP writing and implementation, curriculum development, public speaking engagements, and more. She has worked with many prestigious companies, including Starbucks, McDonald’s, Domino’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Target, Chick-fil-A, Disney, Stop and Shop, Walgreens, Sheetz, GOJO/Purell, Marriott, Omni Hotels & Resorts, RizePoint, Colnspect, and more. Additionally, Francine is frequently featured as a food safety expert in the media, including The Huffington Post, the Dr. Oz Show, iHeartRadio, the BBC World Series Radio, among others. She has published hundreds of articles related to food safety matters.