How Restaurants Can Better Prepare to Prevent Foodborne Illness in the Wake of COVID-19

COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly across the country, forcing millions of restaurants to suspend operations or pivot to a delivery model in hopes of flattening the curve. As restaurants make this shift and close their physical doors to customers, they’re entering an unprecedented time in restaurant history.

As this global pandemic continues to evolve, we are learning that proper hygiene is critical in slowing the spread of the virus. In fact, 48 million Americans get sick each year from foodborne illness, and the spread of germs from the hands of food handlers to food accounts for 89 percent of all foodborne illnesses that are contracted in restaurants. As a result, consumers will have a renewed interest and demand for hygiene, and successful brands will learn how to proactively and thoughtfully communicate to their customers around the actions they take to ensure proper sanitation in the wake of the pandemic and what lies ahead. Before the pandemic, less than 25 percent of restaurants’ handwashing practices were in compliance with FDA required food code handwashing frequency requirements.

Both customers and employees are looking to brands and leaders to wave the green flag to ensure it’s safe to enjoy their food or to come into work. With sensitivity at an all-time high, restaurants must double down on deploying food hygiene systems and ensuring a proper infrastructure to maintain them. Any transition at a restaurant can be challenging – whether the transition of management, introduction of new menu items, or implementation of procedural changes – and it often results in lower hygiene compliance. Food safety, in particular, is one of the first items to slip, so identifying and building in additional tools for food safety management and enforcement is essential to short and long term operational excellence.

When restaurants reopen they’ll be doing so in a new landscape not only for restaurants and restaurant workers but for patrons, too. These customers will be educated on how viruses and bacteria are transmitted and demand restaurants communicate about how they’re proactively combating disease. Customers will care, and ask, about handwashing, food handling, and what their favorite restaurants are doing to keep them safe.

Food Safety Technology

Restaurants should use this downtime to build strategies around food safety by investing in technology and retraining or upskilling team members. As restaurants continue to weather transitions, having technology in place is the only way to ensure food safety doesn’t fall behind. Products like hand hygiene systems help track and monitor hand washing frequency and effectiveness to detect harmful contaminants that transmit illness and analyze your restaurant’s handwashing data and trends. Other tools such as a digital checklist and digital temperature sensors give you visibility into various sanitation tasks being performed at your location.

Communicating with the Customer

As the newly educated customers return, brands need updated messaging that demonstrates their commitment to food safety. One way restaurants can show customers they care about hygiene is through visual cues customers see in stores or online. An example of this would be that employees can wear pins on their uniforms reading “My Hands Are Clean” or stickers on the storefront let guests know as they enter that the restaurant is using technical tools to guarantee proper handwashing. Virtual options also exist online to inform customers as they place delivery orders or read through the menu that the restaurant has food safety top of mind.

With COVID-19 and other harmful outbreaks increasing public focus on handwashing and other hygiene practices, restaurants will be faced with added pressure to minimize their risk to public health and ensure their teams are following handwashing best practices. Restaurants looking to thrive in a constantly changing industry will need to prioritize their customers’ safety and build a team culture that celebrates sanitation.