“Mango” was the code word at one of my first kitchen jobs. It signaled that the health inspector had arrived and we had to stop what we were doing and start running around the kitchen to fix every health code violation we could see. Invariably we weren’t fast enough with our sharpies and masking tape to catch everything.
At another job, the chef had a theory that anything that was out on the counter was “in progress” and somehow exempt from labeling and temperature regulations. So we would empty the cooler and throw everything on the prep tables and pretend to be working on it.
I’ve buried unlicensed vacuum sealing machines, hidden homemade charcuterie experiments in closets, and fudged countless dated labels. As fun as it often was, I’m not proud of it. Rather, I am of the somewhat controversial opinion that you should look forward to your health inspection… and view your inspector as part of your team.
Nobody wants to make their guests sick – and it’s plain bad for business. Yet so many restaurant owners simply ignore proper food handling procedures. So what is the secret to getting a perfect score every time? Training, systems, and practice.
Training your staff gives them the why’s and how’s of keeping food safe.
- ServSafe Programs like ServSafe do a great job of teaching thebasics of proper food handling. One of the best investments you can make in your staff is sending everyone (and yourself!) to get certified through ServSafe or another food handler training program.
- Daily Discussions Incorporate food-handling topics into your daily shift meetings. Practicing hand washing together and discussing why we don’t re-serve bread are quick topics that are always good to reinforce.
Operating systems give you the tools to maintain a safe and sanitary kitchen.
- Temperature Logs Track temperatures throughout the day for everything that you hold hot or cold, and every refrigerator or freezer you own. You should never be surprised by something being in the temperature danger zone. If you cook and chill anything you should have a separate log just for tracking temperatures for foods that you are cooling.
- Line Check Not only is the line check another opportunity to ensure that food is being held at the right temperature and in-date, but you can build your line check to include the proper utensil for each item (prevent cross-contamination), gloves at every station, proper hand-washing supplies at the hand sink, and sanitizing solution at every station (at the proper concentration). Include everything needed for a safe and sanitary line setup.
- Storage Diagrams Kept in your cooler, storage diagrams will help make sure that you don’t store raw fish on top of your lettuce. Kept in your dry storage, they will help keep your cleaning chemicals far away from food. When everything is in its place, everything is stored safely.
- Apply for Variances If you are doing anything out-of-the-ordinary – especially anything that involves reduced-oxygen environments or curing – you will need to find out which variances your local health department requires… and then actually do the work to get them. You will have to make and follow HACCP plans. It’s worth it.
Perform your own internal health inspections – practice makes perfect.
- Copy your county’s form and conduct monthly, weekly, or daily inspections until you get a 100 every time. Your staff will be ready, your food will be ready, and you won’t need any code words! You will pinpoint problems before they show up on an inspector’s report. There will be no low grade to hang in your window or public humiliation in the newspaper.
The single most important thing you can do is talk to your inspector and let them know how important food safety is to you. Let them know that you want to work with them to make your kitchen the cleanest kitchen they’ve ever seen. View them as a partner in your mission to serve the best food and be the best restaurant. Their mission is to protect the public health – which will protect your business too. You will just have to find cheap thrills in ways other than sprinting down the hallway looking for a place to hide your illegal prosciutto.