The Collaboration of Food Safety and Design: It’s Not Just About Cool Colors and Kitchen Aesthetics

By Francine L. Shaw, President
Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc.

The Collaboration of Food Safety and Design: It's Not Just About Cool Colors and Kitchen Aesthetics
Francine L. Shaw, President
Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc.

Recently, I happened to sit next to an interior designer on a plane, and we chatted throughout the entire flight.  She was telling me about her job as an interior designer, and I was telling her about mine as a food safety expert, and we discussed – at length! – how these two roles aligned.   In our conversation, we agreed that food service professionals – restaurant owners, kitchen managers, etc. – should work in conjunction with the folks who design restaurants, kitchens, and equipment.  In fact, all commercial and residential kitchens should be designed with food safety in mind.

Often, people think of only the aesthetics of a kitchen design – like what color tiles to use and what the finished project should look like. It’s far more important to think through the function of the design to maximize efficiency and to ensure it supports proper food safety protocols.

A person can wash their hands 100 times a day, but if the water at the sink doesn’t get hot enough, it’s irrelevant as far as food safety is concerned. Often, I see commercial kitchens with hot water tanks that are too small to handle their large volume of business.  This is something that should be considered at the design stage to ensure the proper size tank is installed (and will fit into the space).

Similarly, if the faucet at the kitchen sink is too low relative to the sink rim, contaminants can easily splash up into the aerator, making the faucet a major source of contamination. Many people would be shocked to learn how dirty kitchen sinks are – in both home and commercial kitchens.  If you wash poultry in the sink, for instance, you risk having salmonella splash up in the faucet where it can survive and breed. When’s the last time you took the aerator off your kitchen sink and cleaned it? (Not many people do.)

When planning and designing commercial kitchen spaces, it’s critical to consider food safety protocols.   When reviewing the proposed layout, think like a food safety expert (or, better yet, hire a food safety expert to consult on the project!).  For instance, servers shouldn’t walk through the prep areas with dirty dishes and utensils that they cleared from guests’ tables – that’s a contamination risk.  The kitchen space should have a separate area for staff to prep/cook/plate allergy-friendly meals for food-allergic guests.  Also, there should be separate equipment (including fryers and grills) that are designated allergy-friendly and free of common allergens, including gluten, seafood, nuts and dairy.  The floor plan should show the flow between all areas of food service, coolers/freezers, storage, warewashing, server prep, restrooms and janitor areas to maximize food safety and minimize risks.

Cleanliness is an essential part of food safety procedures, and any good kitchen design makes it easy, efficient and safe to clean hands, food, dishes and other equipment.  Handwashing sinks should be convenient and easily accessible for all employees on the line, in prep areas, in the warewash room and in the front of the house.  (Remember – everyone on your staff will need to wash their hands after handling money, touching menus, shaking hands with guests, before handling food, etc. – so all employees will need access to handwashing sinks throughout their shifts.)  Each kitchen should have at least one separate mop sink available to fill up and dispose of mop water – and this sink should never be used to wash food, equipment, dishes or hands.  Also essential: a 3-compartment sink for washing, rinsing and sanitizing equipment.  A 3-compartment sink is necessary even if the kitchen has a dishwasher.

The layout of each part of the kitchen should be thoughtfully considered for efficiency and food safety.  For instance, the food prep line should be efficient, of course, but should also be designed to elevate food safety practices.  In the prep line, position the salad station on the opposite end from where raw meat and poultry are being prepped and handled.  Additionally, store ready to eat foods (like produce) away from raw proteins (poultry, meat, seafood, eggs) to reduce the chance of cross-contamination.

While the design and functionality of the kitchen space is important, so is the design and functionality of kitchen equipment.  If the refrigerator in your commercial or residential kitchen has spots on the door to hold milk and eggs, that’s a design flaw that can lead to foodborne illness.  The door is actually the warmest spot in a refrigerator – especially when people are opening and closing the door multiple times per day.  Therefore, storing dairy and eggs there poses a risk.  Instead, store milk, eggs and other dairy products at the proper temperature – in the coldest part of the refrigerator – and avoid exposing them to warm air throughout the day, which boosts the chance that harmful bacteria will grow.

Also, it may seem like a minor aesthetic detail, but kitchen designers must think about the materials they use – down to the tiles and shelving.  If designers use porous materials, there’s a much higher risk that the tiles (e.g., floors, counters, backsplashes) and shelving will harbor bacteria, which could lead to foodborne illness incidents or outbreaks.  Therefore, all finishes in food prep areas should be smooth, easily cleanable and non-absorbent.  In addition, designers and construction teams must prevent even the smallest cracks or crevices in kitchens, as these areas can quickly and easily attract dirt, germs, insects and rodents – which can a) lead to foodborne illnesses and b) be difficult and expensive to remove. Be sure to seal counters, cabinets and other equipment to the walls or, conversely, leave enough open space between the counters/cabinets/etc. and the walls to allow thorough and regular cleaning.

It is imperative that the minimum lighting requirements in food preparation, storage and serving areas are met. And, that equipment and utensils conform to the requirements as specified in by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF). These are areas that are frequently overlooked.

Food safety and design professionals must work collaboratively to minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses and to maximize the safety of all guests. A food safety expert will add unequivocal value and confidence when designing for today’s world where food safety and food defense are of the utmost importance in any commercial kitchen.

The Collaboration of Food Safety and Design: It's Not Just About Cool Colors and Kitchen AestheticsFrancine L. Shaw is President of Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc., which offers a robust roster of services, including consulting, food safety training, food safety inspections, norovirus policies for employees, norovirus clean-up procedures, curriculum development, responsible alcohol service training, and more. The Food Safety Training Solutions team has more than 100 combined years of industry experience in restaurants, casinos, and convenience stores. The company has helped numerous clients, including Paradies Lagardère, McDonald’s, Subway, Marriott, Domino’s, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America, Dairy Queen, and Omni Hotel and Resorts, prevent foodborne illnesses. Additionally, they work with restaurants of all sizes, schools, medical facilities, convenience stores, hotels and casinos.  Francine has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, iHeartRadio, Food Safety News, and Food Management Magazine.