There’s no denying that the restaurant industry has taken a massive hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For months, many states had strict stay-at-home orders, and as the quarantine slowly lifts, many people still feel uneasy about returning to restaurants. While we all want this pandemic to end, it’s clearly a long-term problem that will take more thought, planning, and business pivots as we move forward. And to survive this crisis (and any future crises), restaurants need to effectively manage the ongoing risks to protect their brand reputation and avoid costly liabilities.
The good news is there are things you can do now to tackle both short- and long-term planning to boost compliance, mitigate risks, and keep everyone safer during a global health pandemic. While everything feels overwhelming in the world, focus on these five solvable challenges:
Prioritize a Food Safety Culture
With or without a pandemic, food safety culture is what you do when no one is looking. Following government recommendations is always required but going the extra mile by providing a positive culture with purpose can help your employees feel more invested in protecting customers and your business.
When employees feel safe, informed, and engaged, then customers will feel safe. You can make statements about your health and safety policies online and with in-store signage, but if your employees at every location aren’t demonstrating those standards, the statements don’t mean much.
At its base, strengthening your food safety culture requires great communication, ongoing training and reminders, and an incentive-based system to build collaboration instead of a punitive system, which often compels employees to do the minimum.
Increase Self-Assessments at Every Location
Ironically, now that restaurants must implement stringent new safety protocols and ensure compliance, it’s become difficult to secure third-party audits due to COVID-related travel restrictions and limits to interpersonal interactions. Since third-party audits aren’t currently feasible, self-assessments must become a critical part of your operations and quality systems.
Adding self-assessments to your existing quality system is simply another way to gather data to help you gain insights at every location. Manual checklists may be helpful at each location, but it’s nearly impossible to use paper records to get a fast and clear view into the operations of any location, region, or area. However, when self-assessments are done with digital auditing tools that aggregate data for you, you can see insights immediately and focus your attention on hotspots and other areas that need it most.
Invest in Software Solutions
The FDA’s New Era blueprint has made it clear that they are moving toward their operations being fully digital, and it will eventually be required that all food-related businesses go digital as well — and that is a positive thing.
Thinking about adoption of technology may feel intimidating (and expensive), but you can start small and scale until your business gets where you need it to be. There are many tiers of software offerings that can help you start where you are and grow when you’re ready.
One of the main benefits of adopting digital auditing solutions in our current climate is that it helps you easily gather more information so you can manage the influx of data from increased audits or self-assessments. Many available digital solutions also aggregate and analyze that data for you, so you can save time and get immediate insights into the performance of each location.
Increase Communication and Distribute Updated Policies Quickly and Efficiently
Information about COVID-19 evolves regularly, as do regular government requirements and your own standards. Many businesses struggle in this area because it can be a massive undertaking if done manually.
Company-wide adoption and consistency of new policies is paramount to your brand protection. But with manual distribution of information, whether through snail mail or long email chains, it’s easy for information to get lost or ignored.
This is, again, where digital solutions can help. Having all your communications and policy updates in a single source that anyone can access is a worthy goal to aim for. You can update any policy or operational change instantly, making everything clear and more efficient.
Use Tech Tools to Quickly Diversify Your Supply Base
It’s clear that many within the restaurant industry were shaken by the lack of stability in their supply base when it was challenged. Your vendors are facing the same challenges as you and, unfortunately, not every key supplier will survive, especially if they are local.
Coming up with a plan to support your key vendors will be important to the success of both parties. Reach out and have conversations to see if there’s anything you can do to help.
On the other hand, COVID-19 has made it clear that diversifying your supply base is key to your business and being prepared for the next crisis. Part of the difficulty of diversification is that you’ll have so much more information to keep track of and store for your compliance records.
Technology is the answer. This can include systems that help you approve and onboard new vendors, as well as store qualifying documents in a way that helps you pull up any certification when needed, as well as keep on top of renewal dates.
Familiarize yourself with the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint, which emphasizes both technology and food safety culture, two important pillars for optimizing your quality, health, and safety systems that ultimately help you protect your brand to survive this crisis and the next.