Your foodservice sales are growing steadily, the menu is pleasing to a large proportion of your customers, your food safety and sanitation programs and training are up to date, and you’ve passed your most recent health department inspections with flying colors. Life is good!
Then, a few days later, a customer witnesses an employee in the bathroom who did not wash his or her hands with soap and water before going back to work, but the reason for the improper handwashing was the empty soap dispenser. Worse yet, the employee did not return with soap to fill the dispenser.
What impression did that encounter leave with the customer? Is that customer likely to come back to your establishment, or will they assume these same lackadaisical practices occur regularly in other areas of your store and kitchen?
Chances are high this customer will be turned off by what he or she witnessed and will not return to your establishment, and will share that experience with others.
Food safety and sanitation is about the approach operators take toward cleanliness at all levels of the organization and in all areas of the store; not just the kitchen or areas visible to customers. The commitment to food safety and sanitation begins at the top, at the CEO level, and must trickle down to every employee in the field and in the stores where food is served, according to Convenience Store News’ How To Crew panel of foodservice experts.
“Make it part of your culture to be food safe, not just when the health department is coming in to review your stores,” said Mathew Mandeltort, corporate foodservice manager for convenience store distributor Eby-Brown Co. LLC and an expert on the CSNews panel.
All restaurants — from quick-service restaurants and convenience stores to white tablecloth establishments — are challenged by food safety, but it is the one area operators can’t afford not to master, no matter how good the food and presentation are.
“Most foodborne illness outbreaks are caused by employees not using appropriate handwashing procedures or proper use of disposable gloves,” said Tim Powell, foodservice consultant with THINK Marketing and a member of the CSNews How To Crew.
The best way to prevent foodborne illness — and not turn customers off — is continuous education and training, transparent and detailed procedures, implementation of inspection and measurement standards, and employee and store rewards to encourage exemplary food safety performance.
Most of our How To Crew experts agree food safety and sanitation is the single most important foodservice discipline. “If anything should keep you up at night about your operation, it should be food safety,” one retailer member said. “A serious mistake here would be both morally and financially devastating and very preventable. With just some focus, training and certification, follow-up and holding people accountable to execute, operators can have a viable and safe food program.”
Putting proper food safety procedures in place is critical. Procedure manuals should be detailed and descriptive with step-by-step instructions for all aspects of the foodservice program so that every employee will understand what to do, leaving no room for interpretation. Our experts also say food safety procedure manuals should use narrative and images to communicate the proper safety and sanitation steps to take.
“You have to keep in mind that not everyone cleans the same way,” one How To Crew retailer noted. Instructions must be explicit and clear. For example, “letting employees know the proper cleaning chemicals to use on particular areas of the store can help save you from dealing with hazardous-material use issues.”
Retailers noted, however, that companies such as Ecolab have made using cleaning chemicals in the store simple for all employees because these systems use premeasured chemicals for sanitizer, floor cleaners and restroom cleaners. “This takes mixing out of the employees’ hands and ensures that the chemicals are not too strong or too weak,” one retailer added.
MASTERING THE FUNDAMENTALS
The National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe program is the most widely used food safety and sanitation certification program, but several CSNews How To Crew members also recommend contacting state and local health departments that run programs. Some colleges and universities also have certification programs, and several industry foodservice suppliers provide training that may be less expensive.
Anyone in the store who touches food should be food-safety certified, and training should be refreshed annually. In-store training should also be performed when new items are added to the menu or company procedures change. “This is generally up to the states, but all management should be certified and a good rule of thumb is recertification every five years,” one retailer stated.
Training and refresher courses are available online, which makes it even easier for employees, managers and field personnel to stay current. High employee turnover in the convenience store industry makes ongoing training an expensive proposition, but it’s an investment operators must make.
Although all food safety principals are critically important, operators need to stay on top of the fundamentals at all times, including temperature controls, avoiding cross contamination, personal hygiene, inventory rotation (first in, first out) and “always, always, always pay attention to expiration dates and dispose of product when it passes its viable life,” one How To Crew retailer urged.
Eby-Brown’s Mandeltort offered the following disciplines and guidelines as a top-of-the-waves primer:
Food temperature. Food has to be prepared and held at the proper temperatures in order to be safe: reheating hot foods to 165 degrees Fahrenheit and holding them at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and keeping cold food appropriately cold at 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Operators must keep food out of the “danger zone” of 41 degrees Fahrenheit to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Foods should be received in the stores at proper temperatures, too, with refrigerated foods at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below and frozen foods at zero degrees Fahrenheit or below.
Cross contamination. Avoid cross contamination (the transfer of harmful microorganisms or substances to food) at all costs. Cross contamination occurs in three ways — food to food, hands to food, or equipment to food. Ready-to-eat foods must receive the most care to prevent cross contamination.
Personal hygiene. Don’t assume all employees understand personal hygiene equally. Food workers must observe the highest possible standards of personal hygiene to make certain that food does not become contaminated. High standards of personal hygiene also play an important role in creating a good public image. This includes glove use, handwashing, fingernail cleanliness, hair grooming, clean uniforms and eliminating unsanitary habits such as eating, drinking, smoking or spitting. It’s also vital for operators to have a clear food worker illness policy so sick or injured workers (with cuts or bandages) are not allowed on the job at any time.
Sanitized food contact surfaces. All food contact equipment and utensils must be clean and sanitized: 1. Before a different type of raw animal food (beef, fish, lamb, pork and poultry) is used; 2. When you change from working with raw foods to working with ready-to-eat foods; 3. Between preparing raw fruits and vegetables and potentially hazardous foods (PHF); 4. At any time during the operation when contamination may have occurred; 5. Every four hours if used with PHF at room temperature greater than 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, clean and sanitize food thermometers before use or storing.
Importantly, all aspects of a food safety program must be monitored and managed to be effective. Documenting daily procedures at store level in logs ensures all are complying with the policies and it helps managers identify problem areas or times of day that need more training attention.
Most of our experts recommend field staff inspections of stores on a monthly or, at a minimum, quarterly basis using health department benchmarks for scoring. Many health departments will provide scoring on various elements of food safety totaling 100 points. Operators can provide incentives for stores that reach specific scoring levels, our experts recommend. Retailers can also provide rewards for team members that complete food safety certification and training, and retraining.
Some CSNews How To Crew members recommend that general store audits should also include some level of food safety inspection as a key component. For example, coolers, freezers and hot holding case temperatures can be easily checked and logged in a store audit.
A good habit for operators to get into is keeping the kitchen and preparation areas clean and in such good condition that they would be presentable to a customer if they were to walk through.
Lastly, share the good news, not only with store employees and top-level executives, but customers, too. “Post good health department scores where people can see them. Be proud if you do it well,” Mandeltort said.