Out of the Quarantine and Into the Fire: Will a Restaurant Make You Sick
Oregon is open for business again. It’s exciting, especially considering that it feels like most of us haven’t had human contact or a proper restaurant meal in decades.
Before you rush to your favorite brewery or pizza joint, it’s important to learn to spot a safe restaurant – a skill that many kitchen veterans have internalized to a tee – like spidey sense, but less exciting. So how can you develop your own superhuman safety senses?
First and foremost, familiarize yourself with the Oregon Health Authority’s safety guidelines. Before you start, trust me, I know – you didn’t come here for homework. Let me clarify – these guidelines will inform how you cook at home and how you view professional kitchens better than any short blurb might.
The Big Four
For those of you who stuck around after the homework section, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
When entering a restaurant, begin by asking yourself a few questions.
Can you see designated “sani-buckets” buckets with food-safe sanitary solution and a rag anywhere upon entry? If not, that’s a red flag. Even before COVID, restaurants with strong food safety ratings consistently made it a rule to regularly sanitize. If you can’t see the buckets, maybe near a bussing area, then it’s likely the establishment is a bit… lax in that department. They could also be hiding them behind the bar or in employee areas, so don’t panic yet.
Next on the checklist of questions: How do bartenders and servers interact with each other? You may have watched the nice, masked young man sanitize a table and menu for you, sure. But did he immediately go back to talk to the bartender and pull down his mask, or touch anything that could hold food without washing his hands? That’s another red flag. The manner in which employees act when they think you’re not watching will speak much louder than anything else.
If the restaurant has an open kitchen, watch the cooks and chefs. Do they wear gloves when handling food? If so, how often do you see them change gloves? An unfortunately common occurrence in kitchens is for people to use the same gloves for multiple tasks, like making a salad and handling an uncooked burger patty. This can be chalked up to laziness, or more likely, an owner or manager who doesn’t budget properly for necessary elements in food safety.
How big is the menu? Believe it or not, one of the biggest turn-offs for a kitchen professional is a large, bloated menu. There are several reasons for this, but primarily it’s hard for a kitchen to make 50+ items safely and well. It can be done, but do you really want to gamble on ordering tofu from a burger place? From the business side, it’s expensive, and that means that owners and kitchen managers are more likely to try and “stretch” an expensive ingredient beyond its viable sell-by date. So if you see a menu that’s almost uncomfortably small, that means you’ve got fresher ingredients, faster service time, and a better guarantee of food safety from people who consistently cook each item on the menu.
And now, in no particular order, are some follow-up questions:
Does the restaurant have air circulating well inside? Despite the idea that COVID is somehow gone now, it’s not. And an airborne virus thrives in areas with poor ventilation and air flow.
How many people are being seated, and where? Groups of six or more, especially when closer than six feet to other tables, increase risk.
Does anyone working seem under the weather? Another unfortunate reality of kitchen life is long hours, no health insurance, and a seemingly unchanged insistence of forcing sick employees to work.
Does the business seem understaffed, or the employees stressed? While not a hard-and-fast rule, this says a lot about the environment in which the employees work. Busy, understaffed crews are simply more likely to make mistakes or cut corners for the sake of a fast service.
A subjective question, but one that will tell you how good your experience will be is how happy do the employees seem? Are they stressed and clearly struggling? While this is a common thing in the food service industry, it can point to larger problems behind the scenes. A business that consistently has frazzled servers and cooks generally means that there is too much being asked of any single person.
Can you see open containers for employee food or drinks near the service areas? That’s a very big red flag. One of the first things you learn when getting your food handler’s card is that your food and drinks must be well and far away from any food preparation or turnover area, and properly covered.
Do any employees touch their face? Do they immediately wash their hands? For that matter, if you can see the kitchen, how often do the cooks wash their hands? If it’s not like clockwork every five to ten minutes and they’re not wearing gloves, run for your life.
If it’s a buffet or pizza-by-the-slice style joint, how often is food under a heat lamp switched out? Pizza can be up for no more than four hours – the same goes for most hot dishes, with some having much shorter safe timelines for consumption. Hot food should be steaming, cold food should be… well, cold. Anything between 40 °F and 140 °F is in what’s called the “danger zone.”
Finally, do you see food safety or COVID guidelines clearly posted? If not, again, run. There are very clear rules defining when and where these guidelines must be posted; rules which many restaurants “forget” until the health inspector is 20 minutes out.
While many of these questions are designed to lead you to make your own decision, some of them are very important. Sanitization, proper safety precautions such as gloves and handwashing, and the size of a menu are key indicators of the quality of service and safety you’ll receive from any given restaurant.
Keep these questions in mind, and you’ll be sure to stay safe, happy, and most importantly full.