By Francine L. Shaw, President of Savvy Food Safety, Inc.,
Restaurants have been hit hard by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. According to Statista, on-site diners in U.S. restaurants declined by 53.83% on October 31, 2020, as compared to the same date in 2019. A recent CDC report said that people are twice as likely to contract COVID-19 if they eat at restaurants, compounding people’s fears about onsite dining. Restaurants must follow strict capacity guidelines to restrict crowds. And seven+ months into the pandemic, people are still anxious about dining out.
But, despite the hardships they’ve faced, the restaurant industry has shown remarkable resilience, tenacity, flexibility, and determination throughout this ordeal. They’ve adopted the new COVID-19 protocols, including frequent cleaning and disinfecting, regular handwashing, wearing face masks, socially distancing, limiting crowds, and more. And they have accepted that many of these changes will likely be long-term (or permanent).
In addition to the basic COVID-19 protocols that have become the “new normal” for U.S. restaurants, food businesses would be wise to implement the following to maximize safety, minimize risks, and reassure a nervous public:
- Demonstrate that you’re taking every safety precaution. Consumers are anxious, and the recent spikes in COVID cases are increasing people’s worries about contracting this highly contagious virus. Demonstrate – through words and actions – that you’re taking every precaution to prevent COVID-19 and other contagious illnesses (e.g., norovirus, Hep A), as well as foodborne illnesses. Restaurant guests no longer “just assume” that restaurants are following proper protocol – now they demand transparency. They want to see employees cleaning every inch of the restaurant, wearing masks, sanitizing their hands, etc. They expect dining tables to be spread out, with limited capacity at the bar. They want ongoing communications – in person conversations, social media posts, onsite signage, etc. – reiterating that your establishment is taking every precaution to help keep everybody safe.
- Adjust your business model. While we all hoped that this would be a short interruption to “business as usual,” it’s clear that COVID-19 is a long-term problem that requires long-term solutions. Continue to offer take-out and delivery options to supplement sales while onsite capacity restrictions are in place. Expand your outdoor seating area. Invest in heat lamps, fire pits, and/or overhead coverings to provide some flexibility for continued outdoor dining as the weather gets colder or wetter. Consider providing special offerings for the holidays, selling pies or takeout turkey dinners. Think of ways you can sustain your business besides typical onsite dining. And communicate any changes/additions to your customers via social media, media outreach, and in-person conversations.
- Prioritize training. Your employees may feel overwhelmed implementing COVID-19 protocols on top of the other food safety initiatives that were already in place. Ongoing training and education can go a long way in making your restaurant safer – and making your employees feel more comfortable and empowered. Emphasize the importance of following safety rules and COVID regulations and explain why these protocols are so important to maximize compliance. Provide reminders via onsite signage, email, texts, pre-shift meetings, and “refresher” training sessions. Make sure employees feel supported, encourage them to ask questions, and emphasize that the whole team is in this together.
- Develop safer ways to serve food. Shared food items are likely a thing of the past. It’s not currently considered safe to offer buffets, salad bars, and “family style dining” due to the possibility of coronavirus transmission via shared serving utensils and contact surfaces, or due to close proximity to others. Provide single-use condiment packets vs. shared bottles. Serve individual meals vs. “family style” shared platters. Offer single servings of pre-packed options rather than a buffet salad bar. Have an employee (with clean hands!) pour coffee for guests rather than allowing them to help themselves to prevent contamination of the pot’s handle. Offer contactless pick-up or delivery options. These “little things” are tremendously important and show that you’re paying close attention to every detail to keep your guests safer.
- Transition to digital systems. It’s been a financially challenging year for many restaurants, so it may seem unrealistic to consider elevating your quality and safety systems right now. The truth is: today’s digital tools and software systems are affordable, attainable, and scalable. Plus, digital tools offer a variety of benefits. They can instantly and accurately provide integrated data about various safety and quality initiatives, allowing you to easily identify (and fix) problems before they become huge liabilities. Digital tools allow you to view and assess complex and voluminous data, looking across the entire enterprise and/or drilling down to specific regions and units. Conversely, manual systems are time-consuming, error-prone, and inaccurate. It’s difficult or impossible to use paper or spreadsheet systems to get real-time data across a business, integrate and assess data, and identify “hot spots” that need attention.
- React pro-actively to COVID-19 exposure. If, despite your best efforts, an employee or guest at your restaurant tests positive for COVID-19, react proactively, honestly, and immediately. Shut down temporarily so all employees can get COVID tests. Take guests’ contact information for proper contact tracing, as necessary. Conduct an extra-thorough professional deep cleaning of the entire facility after an exposure. Communicate immediately through social media about any onsite exposure, subsequent closings, expected reopening date, and precautions you’re taking (e.g., testing all employees, extra deep cleaning of the facility, etc.) Update your crisis plan before an incident occurs, outlining your crisis procedure, media spokesperson, legal representation, and other key contacts, so you’ll be better prepared in the event of an incident, outbreak, or other crisis.
COVID-19 is more than just a short-term inconvenience; it’s a long-term problem that has changed the foodservice industry forever. While this ongoing crisis may be frustrating and overwhelming, continue to be flexible, determined, adaptable, and resilient. Show your employees and guests that you’re taking every precaution to keep them safe.
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.