It’s a fact. Restaurants across Canada are on the brink of reopening, whether to patio dining, in-restaurant meals, or both. Diners are understandably excited to return to their favourite culinary haunts. But what about restaurant staff, many of whom have been furloughed for part or all of the pandemic? How safe is it for them to return?
As Jeff Dover, principal of fsSTRATEGY Inc., says, “Very few cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed as spreading in restaurants; this includes areas of the country where indoor dining has been allowed. In short, the restaurant industry was [already] doing a good job of keeping staff safe.”
“Very few cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed as spreading in restaurants. In short, the restaurant industry was [already] doing a good job of keeping staff safe.”Jeff Dover, principal of fsSTRATEGY Inc.
But keeping restaurant staff safe and having restaurant staff who feel safe are two different things. Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition has been petitioning provincial governments to improve restaurant workers’ protections like paid sick leave and overtime pay. As reported in the Toronto Star, Not 9 to 5, a non-profit providing resources for mental-health well-being among hospitality workers, recently introduced the Mind Your Health project. The project includes a certification program on workplace safety from a psychological perspective, along with an online survey to collect data on mental-health well-being among hospitality workers.
Where to start
“The key for me is to ensure that staff wear masks and, even more so, keep six feet apart when possible,” advises Dover. “When staff have to be within six feet (e.g., taking orders, picking up food), the time of exposure should be limited. One of the primary challenges is tight kitchen spaces such as a line with multiple stations not six feet apart. Redesigning the menu to have fewer kitchen stations will help keep the staff safe. COVID-19 is more likely to be transmitted indoors and in close spaces. Redesign your workflows to eliminate or limit such interactions.”
Sanitize regularly. Tables, work surfaces, and other areas, both front and back of house.
Reduce staff sharing. For instance, kitchen staff should never share utensils at back of house.
Change your menuing. Other changes will need to be instituted to ensure the safety of both your guests and your employees. Reusable menus, for instance, may become a thing of the past. Many restaurants, says Dover, are putting QR codes on tables to limit contact with shared items. “When guests request menus, they should be provided with a single use copy. Condiments should not be kept on tables and should be sanitized before use. Cutlery should be rolled and brought to the table after the guests are seated. Simple adjustments like these will assist in limiting the spread of COVID-19 for both guests and staff.”
Appoint a COVID-19 point person. “I recommend having someone responsible each shift to ensure COVID-19 prevention practices are adhered to,” says Dover. “This person could also be the go-to for questions about practices being employed to keep customers and staff safe.”
Organize vaccination days. A number of restaurant chains in the US have said they are providing pay for staff to get vaccinated and are even helping their employees to book appointments.
Offer paid sick days. This is key, says Dover. “You don’t want staff to come to work when they are not feeling well. Take advantage of federal and provincial paid sick day programs if you can. Paying sick days will be less expensive in the long run than having your restaurant closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak.” Should you experience an outbreak, make sure you have records of which employees worked when, along with info on your dine-in restaurant customers and who served them. Contact tracing is key.
Ramp up your communication. Let your staff know what you’re doing to keep them safe, and then inform your guests of the steps you’ve introduced to keep them — and your employees — safe. “If you are able to pay sick days, I would communicate it,” Dover advises. “The restaurant chains in the States paying staff (I heard two to four hours) to get vaccinated received great publicity. We have seen in jurisdictions that have opened up that there is significant pent-up demand. However, not all staff will be comfortable working and not all potential customers will be comfortable in dining rooms. Communication on the safety practices being employed will help alleviate any such fears.”
Your restaurant safety protocols checklist
Employee safety, testing and validation will be key to successful restaurant reopening. Healthcare and foodservice workers may be required to validate their health status before handling food in the post-COVID-19 environment. Here are some protocols you should initiate to ensure the highest level of safety:
- A Validated Body Temperature Check and Log for employees before they enter a place of work. These records will need to be maintained or even submitted to a higher authority on a regular basis, following the lead of most healthcare facilities.
- Food Safe Certification (or comparable) for all foodservice workers.
- Face Masks. All food handlers (and maybe even service staff) will be required to wear a protective mask. Ensure you have masks available for all your staff.
- Hand washing. Training in proper sanitary handwashing must be demonstrated and followed frequently.
- Sanitary uniforms. Many restaurants require uniforms but leave them up to employee. Gone may be that favourite Che T-shirt as a uniform of choice, along with unwashed shoes, baseball caps, or cargo pants and shorts, as operators pivot to requiring uniforms laundered daily and professionally, and not left in staff lockers or change rooms.
- Work surface sanitation protocol and records. Sanitizing of work surfaces, equipment and documentation of all protocols is recommended.
- HACCP enforcement. Temperature and travel logs must become second nature. HACCP (time temperature tracking) will become the most critical safety/sanitation issue in the future.
- New procedures for clean dishes, flatware and glassware. Flatware must be free of contamination before menu items are plated and delivered to a guest. Discuss with your chemical service providers how to ensure products and equipment are safe for staff and guests.
- Health inspections. Develop a plan to interact more with your local health department. Involve chefs and managers to create a flow of information.
- Focus on safe distances between employees. The typical design of a restaurant leads to the smallest amount of kitchen space to accomplish the job — leaving more space for revenue generation out front.
- Seek opportunities for menu change or equipment location swap to increase safe distancing in the kitchen and service area. While 2 metre social distancing may not be possible at all times, plan to incorporate more space.
- Rethink your staffing. Use the opportunity to rehire as many of your good staff as possible, but also consider adding new and better hires with more experience. Will you be continuing to offer delivery? Make sure you have the right staff for your right jobs.
About the Author
Jane Auster is the editor of ChefConnexion.com. She has been a foodservice writer and editor for more than 30 years. Jane was the editor of Your Foodservice Manager, a national magazine for professionals in the foodservice and hospitality industry in Canada, and FoodBiz.ca digital site. She was also editorial consultant and managing editor for the relaunch of Flavours magazine.