Food safety has always been a priority in the foodservice industry, but the appearance and spread of COVID-19 has made safety the most significant concern for the foreseeable future.
The FDA, a $5.7 billion agency overseeing $2.6 trillion in the consumption of food, medical products and tobacco, is built on the protection and safety of public health. Health departments and training programs (ex., ServSafe) are actively following FDA guidelines to educate restaurants on safety and operational best practices.
Restaurants are either shutting down entirely or offering carryout, curbside and delivery service options only. In healthcare operations, cafeterias are limited, and communal dine-in care has stopped. All are trying to follow CDC safety guidelines for handwashing, social distancing, face covering, coughing/sneezing, cleaning and disinfecting.
Slowly, dine-in operations have begun again in some infected areas. In Beijing, Xibei, a 386-restaurant chain reopened a mall store in late March with much success. Half of the tables were closed off and spread out to ensure customer comfort and safety. Sweden has not locked down society as cafes and restaurants are open but with limited seating and ample table spacing. In the U.S., restaurants have become progressive and inventive with solutions to feed customers under social distancing and quarantine orders. The arrival of curbside, drive-thru and delivery services raise the demand for to-go containers and temperature-holding delivery bags. Current state and government restrictions, though they may be temporary now, will pave the way for new dining experiences.
Our industry is innovative, adaptive and necessary. Operators who put themselves ahead of the pandemic curve will succeed.
No-contact is the future of dining out. With restaurants being nothing but contact surfaces, reflexive actions like opening a door, pulling out a chair or waiting for a table at the bar will change. The dining process will begin before arrival. Some hotel chains offer digital check-in and keys, giving guests the luxury of bypassing front desks. Similarly, diners will reserve tables on restaurant apps, walking in only when their tables are ready. The apps will have a series of cleanliness mission statements and agreements for diners to acknowledge.
Dining booths will have higher backs, and tables will be spaced further apart for guest comfort. Similarly, bars will be partitioned for patron safety. If diners don't offer digitized menus, laminated menus will be cleaned and sanitized at host/hostess stands, with guests being able to note the process. Where possible, hand washing stations will be located outside the bathrooms. At the tables, additional hand sanitizer will be available in either dispenser or bottle forms.
Both restaurant and public bathrooms will have more signage posted about establishment cleaning processes. Establishments will upgrade to automatic water, soap and towel dispensing and commode flushing. Since COVID-19 and other pathogens can be transmitted through the air via droplets and aerosol, forced air hand dryers will be removed.
Service workers will have personal protection equipment as part of their uniforms. Surgical masks, face shields and single-use gloves will be the norm for servers. Workers may be screened with infrared (forehead) thermometers as part of the clocking-in process to eliminate chances of employees infecting other staff members and guests. Diners will be observing staff practices more than ever. Expect guests to contact local health departments when witnessing poor sanitary practices. Social media postings about poor practices will close businesses.
Supply chain challenges will continue after the crisis. Broad liners will have their own new normal with which to contend. Establishments may adjust by having fewer menu offerings. Operators will remove products into different containers, leaving cardboard surfaces on the loading docks. Because of common use utensils, there will no longer be self-service bars in restaurants, cafeterias, cruise ships, independent living facilities, schools and catering businesses. Buffet operations will have attendants serving guests. Touchless condiment dispensers or packets will replace pump models—the same for self-service beverage dispensing.
Our industry is innovative, adaptive and necessary. Operators who put themselves ahead of the pandemic curve will succeed. Businesses will be cleaner and safer by educating and equipping staff and dining rooms with the tools necessary to create safe and comfortable dining out experiences.