During the height of the pandemic, some major foodservice features got curtailed, often in the name of food safety.
Self-service had a big timeout. Even self-service fountain drinks and communal condiment containers were sidelined. In short, customers have since become a little more “germ aware” and want to see cleanliness and hygiene on display so they can feel confident that those preparing their food are washing their hands and following food safety protocol.
Cini-Little Inc. “The No. 1 thing customers want to see these days is that the food they’re being served was prepared using hygienic practices.”“There’s been this renewed focus on food safety since COVID, for sure,” says Kip Serfozo, FCSI, LEED ID&C AP, WELL AP, design director,
Garret Sletten, director, Ricca Design Studios, agrees. “Operators are more hyperaware now — they don’t want people getting sick from COVID or just a normal cold, and they don’t want that transferred to customers,” he says. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for restaurant employees to come in with a little cold, but now if you’re sick, you’re asked to stay home. “This is a great thing, and something that should have been around earlier.”
The hyperawareness about illnesses, contagions and contamination has a direct impact not only on food safety operations, but on design and equipment, too. More operators are “taking a visual approach to showing the customer that their establishment is cleaner and heavily sanitized,” Sletten says.
One update happening: antimicrobial finishes for high-touch areas and touchless everything, from faucets to condiment and beverage dispensers and beyond. Sletten adds that he’s also specified more hand sinks as of late than at any other time in his career.
Sletten is even seeing operators want hand sinks at the front of the house for guest use. “I’ve worked on many installations where the hand sink washing station in the restaurant is designed with a residential feel, with nice finishes, a beautiful counter, sinks and a mirror,” he says. This approach continues to grow in popularity across a variety of operator segments, including restaurants, corporate serveries and higher education institutions.
Smart Food Safety
What seems to be a repeat pattern, however, is a juxtaposition of the need to address food safety at a stronger level while dealing with labor shortages. That’s where modern technology comes into play.
“Kitchens are finally becoming more digitalized and connected,” says Serfozo. “That’s allowing foodservice managers to put temperature monitors at almost all HACCP steps, from receiving to cooling, dry storage, blast chillers, hot wells, cold wells and cooking equipment.”
As such, managers can receive temperature updates and alerts digitally and file reports with ease and precision. The days of using a pen or pencil attached to a clipboard are over. “Even handheld thermometers are wireless now and will send information remotely,” Serfozo says.
And these software developments go hand in hand with good foodservice design. “We’re there to basically design the facility infrastructure around what level of connectivity that [the client] wants,” Serfozo says. “More and more pieces are wireless, which helps because there’s less physical wear and tear that takes place.”
In the back of the house, cooking and cooling equipment is “getting better,” Serfozo says. “[Pieces] are able to maintain temperatures at more precise levels than even five years ago. Back then, a refrigerator might vary five or six degrees, but that’s not the case anymore, and it’s really helping operators, especially during labor challenges.”
The “set it and forget it” nature of sous vide cooking has become more accepted by health departments as these systems can fit nicely into HAACP plans. “I’ve even seen some combi ovens that have a sous vide-like mode, which is great because you can control rethermalizing more precisely,” says Sletten.
Serfozo points out some newer thaw cabinets on the market will more accurately and safely bring raw, frozen meat to proper temperatures — and these units can prevent human error, too. That certainly works better than the sometimes used method of running hot water over frozen chicken breasts in the sink to thaw. These thaw cabinets come in different sizes now, from undercounter units to ones holding a few small pans to full-size, larger ones. And — you guessed it — operators can monitor these controls from smartphones.
Temperature control has also become an issue amid a rise in delivery and off-premises. Though people tend to pick up their food in a timely fashion, Serfozo says, many operators have looked into temperature-controlled cubbies or are even using hot holding equipment to maintain temperatures before pickup. Operators have also had to revisit packaging to better help keep hot food hot and cold food cold during transport.
What was reactionary during the height of COVID-19 is now more proactive — designers now specify adjustable breath shields so self-serve salad bars and buffets can easily switch to a full-service operation style if necessary.
The other newbies at the self-serve line are disposable gloves or single-use utensils so customers don’t have to feel skittish about touching the same tongs that others have touched. “There might be a disposable tong that you toss or, better yet, a permanent ladle or spoon that you can throw into a bin to get washed,” Serfozo says.
While many operators have returned to self-service, others have not, or have expanded their grab-and-go offerings. Again, this helps with food safety protocol but also with labor issues. “We’ve been seeing a huge increase in grab and go,” says Sletten. “If you’re able to use your staff to build a bunch of salads in containers in the morning and have those refrigerated and stored, you’re avoiding some of that intensive labor required to restock a salad bar during peak hours, for example.”
The quality of grab-and-go merchandisers has improved, too, including enhanced abilities to hold temperature. “There’s equipment on the market now where a merchandiser door will automatically lock after a certain time or if temperatures drop to prevent spoilage,” Sletten says. “If you know your egg salad sandwich only has a three-hour limit, you can set that locking mechanism so you know you’re not serving a bad product.”
One area ripe with automation options is dishwashing. “With the increase in grab and go, on the back end, operators were purchasing more disposables, so there was a paradigm shift because we’re not washing 200 to 300 plates anymore,” says Sletten. However, even though some disposables are compostable, there’s been a return to permanent ware.
“We’re seeing more [clients] want to go back to reusable china, even in corporate serveries and university halls,” Sletten says. Despite the convenience that grab and go offers, “there’s a perceived higher-level-quality experience when you eat food off of a real plate.”
More warewashers on the market now offer more automated, press-of-a-button modes and robotic arms that take the place of a human to load, wash and unload, according to Sletten. “Introducing robotics in the dish room is an easy way to tackle a mundane, repetitive task to save on labor cost,” he says.
Glass washers are likewise improving, says Serfozo. “Some manufacturers use reverse osmosis built into the machine so when the glasses come out, you don’t have to hand polish them,” he says. “That saves on labor and presents a cleaner product.”
The pandemic uprooted so many things, including the way operators functioned and the way consumers dined out. The silver lining is an even greater focus on food safety, which is something savvy operators have prioritized all along.
Top Foodborne Illnesses
The most prevalent foodborne illnesses are caused by norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, and Staphylococcus aureus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While coronavirus is not foodborne, the word “virus” still connotates hestiancy about being around others.
“In the past, restaurant workers might have thought to themselves, ‘I’m feeling generally OK, so I can go to work,’ but that person might still be shedding the virus days after infection that could make others sick,” says Patrick Guzzle, vice president of food science and industry for the National Restaurant Association.
On the plus side, “we’ve seen substantial declines in norovirus during the pandemic, and we believe that might be due to the illness policies put in place around COVID,” Guzzle adds. “Restaurants today want you to stay home if you’re not feeling well.”
At the same time, the increased awareness of how viruses act and spread and the increasing concern about germs from the general population has correlated with an increase in handwashing.
The National Restaurant Association has released training materials encouraging personal hygiene and good food safety practices for third-party delivery drivers as takeout and delivery are still going strong. The tips note that foodservice managers should ensure that delivery vehicles are clean and well maintained. “We have to recognize that the folks operating vehicles or bicycles are safe too and that they are delivering food as efficiently and safely as possible,” Guzzle says.
How One Operator Updated Its Food Safety Program
East Coast Wings + Grill, a full-service, family-dining franchise with more than 60 locations nationwide, has looked to technology to improve food safety post-COVID. “From an operations standpoint, food safety training has always been at the forefront for us, but we took that to the next level when COVID hit,” says Whitney Mann, executive vice president, operations for the chain.
Mann led the implementation of a software platform that records data from temperature probes on cooking and cooling equipment. Staff can access that data in real time, remotely from an iPad or smartphone. “We wanted to pioneer a way we could help not only operational challenges in terms of keeping hot food hot and cold food cold but also take current labor challenges into account,” she says. “That led us to finding this platform and implementing it such that it basically gave the management team a digital assistant.”
The chain is just one of many operators who now prefer Bluetooth-enabled thermometers and wireless sensors that can be attached to existing coolers, freezers, griddles and other cooking equipment and send alerts if temperatures are off. The particular platform East Coast Wings + Grill uses also maintains a solid document library online that stores all the temperatures taken over the course of days, weeks, months and years and across all locations.