Keeping Customers and Staff Safe During COVID-19

Here are some tips from the front lines to make sure your cleaning routine creates an atmosphere that keeps your customers, and the health department, happy.

It’s probably a love of food that got you into the restaurant business, so it’s understandable if you don’t also have an abiding love for the mundane tasks involved in running a restaurant, like cleaning it. But now more than ever, with the spread of the flu and COVID-19, your restaurant needs to be the most sanitary it’s ever been to protect your guests and your staff from getting sick. 

When it comes down to it, restaurants are already some of the most regularly cleaned public spaces around. You’re probably already doing a lot of what needs to be done to prevent the spread of germs in your restaurant — all you’ve gotta do now is ramp up your sanitizing, increase your hand-washing protocol, and make sure your staff aren’t coming to work sick. Make sure your staff know that nothing matters more than their health and the health of your customers.

A survey conducted online by Harris Poll in 2016 found that 93% of adults in the United States would avoid entering an establishment again if they previously experienced some type of flaw with the facility. This includes common issues related to restaurant cleanliness, such as general bad odor, dirty restrooms, and unclean surfaces. And now more than ever, people are on the lookout for these types of issues.

The CDC says COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person, through being in close contact with one another and through coughs and sneezes. During a health crisis like this, follow the CDC’s recommendations for businesses. Increase the frequency with which you have staff sanitize frequently touched areas like door handles and touch-screen kiosks, and have all staff wash their hands more frequently than usual, like they’re doing at Starbucks and Dunkin’. And remind your staff often that proper hand washing takes 20 seconds. This is especially important during the rush, so if you need an extra person on staff each shift to ease the burden of the extra cleaning, find a way to make it work.

In this article, we’ll walk you through how to clean a restaurant, section by section, capped off with some general advice about how to keep your restaurant safe and sanitary for all. 

In this piece about cleaning a restaurant, you’ll learn:

  • How to clean each section of a restaurant (front of house, bar, back of house)

  • The cleaning supplies needed to keep your restaurant safe and sanitary

  • Restaurant cleaning best practices

And just so you know, this content is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal, accounting, tax, HR, or other professional advice. You’re responsible for your own compliance with laws and regulations. Contact your attorney or other relevant advisor for advice specific to your circumstances.

Restaurant Cleaning: From Front (of house) to Back (of house)

Front of House Cleaning Checklist 

Your front of house is the first impression guests will have when arriving at your restaurant and needs to be an atmosphere that will make them feel comfortable throughout their dining experience, especially these days. This is where appearance is everything. Make sure your guests can see that you’ve ramped up the cleaning.

Cleaning Supplies Needed:

  • Surface and glass spray cleaners.

  • Sanitizer solution (bleach).

  • Clean cloths.

  • Broom.

  • Mop and bucket of hot soapy water.

  • Vacuum for carpeted areas and hard to reach nooks.

  • Bathroom cleanser and toilet brush.

  • Paper supplies such as toilet paper, paper towels, and napkins.

During the Shift:

  • Spray and wipe down high traffic surfaces like door handles, railings, seats and table tops as often as needed. During a health crisis, have a staff member do this much more frequently than usual.

  • During a health crisis, it’s also worth considering removing any communal condiments that usually live on tables, like bottles of ketchup, and providing them only when asked — and wiping them down after each use.  

  • Spot clean windows and glass doors so they are free of smudges and streaks.

  • Check that each table has a clean and fully-stocked setting.

  • Periodically check bathrooms for cleanliness.

When Closing Out:

  • Prepare silverware and napkins for the next shift.

  • Spray and wipe down menus.

  • Spray and wipe down all table tops.

  • Thoroughly clean and sanitize bathroom surfaces. 

  • Sweep and mop floors.

  • Vacuum up any visible crumbs or debris from rugs.

Once a Week:

  • Vacuum harder-to-reach areas.

  • Dust all fixtures and secondary surfaces.

  • Spray and wipe down all glass surfaces and mirrors.

  • Sanitize and scrub the toilets.

  • Tend to any live plants.

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Bar Cleaning Checklist 

The bar is a busy area that’s on full display to guests. It’s important to keep it clean for safety as well as for appearances.

Cleaning Supplies Needed:

  • Surface spray cleaners.

  • Several clean bar rags.

  • Sanitizer solution (bleach).

  • Trash bags.

  • Broom.

During the Shift:

  • Wipe down the bar, very frequently. Use sanitizing solution often and switch out your bar rag more often than usual during a health crisis.

  • Run glassware through dishwasher. 

  • Refill disposables like napkins, stirrers, and straws.

  • Empty trash and recycling bins.

When Closing Out:

  • Clean and empty garnish trays.

  • Wipe down bottles and speed wells.

  • Clean soda guns.

  • Completely empty and sanitize ice wells.

  • Remove floor mats for cleaning.

  • Sweep floor.

Once a Week:

  • Spray and wipe down the surfaces inside coolers.

  • Dust and wipe down bottles and shelves behind the bar and any decorative fixtures.

  • Clean and flush keg lines.

  • Clean behind any movable equipment.

Back of House Cleaning Checklist 

The back of house can get messy quickly as food and dirty dishes come and go. It’s crucial for the safety of staff and guests alike to stay on top of cleaning tasks.

Cleaning Supplies Needed:

  • Surface and glass spray cleaners.

  • Clean cloths.

  • Steel wool pads.

  • Sanitizer solution (bleach).

  • Stainless steel cleaner.

  • Commercial dishwasher detergent.

  • Degreaser.

  • Hand soap.

  • Food prep gloves.

  • Broom.

  • Mop and bucket of hot soapy water.

  • Trash bags.

  • Paper towels.

  • Power washer.

  • Stiff bristle deck brush.

Prep Station

During the Shift:

  • Check that all surfaces are clean before starting prep.

  • Wipe down and sanitize surfaces between preparing different foods.

  • Wrap and date everything after it’s been placed into a new container.

  • Shuttle tools to the dish pit as needed.

When Closing Out:

  • Clean equipment and tools, and take cutting boards, bowls/containers, etc. to the dish pit.

  • Wipe and sanitize food prep surfaces and polish all stainless steel surfaces including ice makers and refrigeration units.

  • Remove floor mats for cleaning.

  • Sweep and mop the floors.

  • Refill soap and paper towel dispensers.

  • Place dirty towels and linens in the appropriate bins.

  • Break down cardboard boxes for recycling.

  • Empty trash bins.

Once a Week:

  • Empty shelves and clean the surfaces of the walk-in and reach-in coolers.

  • Toss out any ingredients that are no longer fresh.

  • De-lime coffee makers.

  • Check any pest prevention traps that may need cleaning or replacing.

The Line

During the Shift:

  • Scrape down griddles and grills between use.

  • Clean up any big spills or splatters.

  • Check the temperatures on hot or cold food holding units.

  • Sanitize surfaces after preparing any potentially dangerous foods.

  • During a health crisis, enforce surface sanitization at certain time intervals, like every hour or half hour.  

When Closing Out:

  • Clean the grills and griddles and empty drip trays.

  • Filter the fryer oil.

  • Empty and sanitize any hot or cold food holding units.

  • Clean equipment and tools, and take pots/pans, etc. to the dish pit.

  • Degrease and sanitize all surfaces.

  • Remove floor mats for cleaning.

  • Sweep and mop the floors.

  • Place dirty towels and linens in the appropriate bins.

  • Empty trash bins.

Once a Week:

  • Replace the fryer oil.

  • Clean the inside and outside of ovens and steamers.

  • Empty grease traps.

  • Clean fan guards, vents, and hoods.

The Dish Pit 

During the Shift:

  • Empty the dishwasher from last night’s run.

  • Collect, wash, and return food prep equipment during gaps between runs of dishes and glassware.

  • Mop the floor periodically to prevent slipping.

When Closing Out:

  • Place all remaining kitchen tools, containers and gear in the dishwasher and run overnight. 

  • Hand wash any gear that cannot be run through the dishwasher.

  • Clean and sanitize the washing station and sinks.

  • Lift up floor mats and run through the dishwasher or spray with a power washer.

  • Sweep and mop.

  • Place dirty towels and linens in the appropriate bins.

  • Take out the trash and recycling.

Once a Week:

  • Check that the floor and sink drains are clean and flowing.

Now that we’ve covered the steps required to keep your front of house, bar, and back of house in tip top shape, let’s dive into some restaurant cleaning best practices that will keep your entire restaurant squeaky clean, compliant with local health codes, and avoid negative customer reviews or fines from a failed health inspection.

Restaurant Cleaning Tip #1: Focus on Preventing Foodborne Illness 

The outbreak of food-related diseases like as E. coli and the Norovirus have affected the reputations and long term success of many restaurants in the United States, including Chipotle, who is still struggling to clear their name years after a widespread E. coli scandal. 

Especially during a viral outbreak like COVID-19, make sure to enforce proper handwashing. All staff must wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds — that’s two full “Happy Birthday” songs — even during the rush, and even if they’re worried a steak will overcook in the meantime. Preventing the transmission of viruses is the number-one priority.

Foodborne illness can be attributed to bacteria, which can multiply quickly when food is kept at what is considered to be an unsafe temperature: above 41 degrees and below 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Bacteria can also produce toxins that make food unsafe for consumption.

Other factors that can contribute to foodborne illnesses in restaurants include:

  • Improper washing of hands (including fingernails).

  • Staff coming in sick and coughing or sneezing near prep surfaces or on food.

  • Poor storage of food items.

  • Cross-contamination (toxins from uncooked meat can be transferred to vegetables used in salads).

  • Improperly cleaned cooking equipment and eating utensils.

  • Contamination of work areas, equipment, utensils.

  • Food that’s been exposed to cockroaches, flies, and other restaurant pests.

E. coli contamination, norovirus infection, and food poisoning are some of the critical food safety issues that you must always avoid at all costs. Make sure all of your surfaces are sanitized, ingredients are stored safely, and food is properly prepared to ensure customers leave your restaurant full and satisfied, not in need of hospitalization.

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Restaurant Cleaning Tip #2: Check the Health Department’s Guidelines

Many restaurants shudder at the thought of a health and safety inspection. If your restaurant receives a bad inspection score, it may need to close temporarily or display a “B” or “C” grade in its window, both of which could cost your business thousands of dollars in lost sales. A study by Baruch College at the City University of New York found that 88% of New Yorkers use the city’s health department letter grades in making their dining decisions, and 76% feel more confident eating in an “A” grade restaurant.

Don’t wait for a bad health score to happen to your restaurant before setting the bar on food safety. Instead, use the health department standards as guidelines to inform the food safety and cleaning processes in your restaurant. After all, the standards are there to help businesses deliver top notch service and maintain a safe, sanitary eating and drinking establishment. Check with your city’s health department, or whichever department conducts health inspections, to get the complete list of what an inspector is looking for when evaluating your front- and back of house. And as we mentioned above, during a health crisis, follow the CDC’s recommendations to prevent the spread of viruses.

For example, if the health code states that salad bar containers must be cleaned at least every 24 hours, make removing and cleaning all the salad bar containers at the end of each shift a part of the daily routine. This way, cleaning becomes a habit to your team and you’ll never have to worry if your kitchen is compliant. 

If your restaurant receives low marks from an inspection, respond constructively and cooperate fully with authorities to learn what systems your restaurant needs to have in place in order to be compliant and operate a safe establishment. In cities like New York, Milwaukee and Toronto where Department of Health ratings must be on public display, a Grade A sign in the window can help bring new customers in the door, so it’s important to make sure you’re crossing all your T’s and dotting your I’s when it comes to health and safety inspections. 

Restaurant Cleaning Tip #3: Prevent Pest Proliferation

Make sure to keep your restaurant pest-free by reducing the opportunities for critters to get a free lunch. Here are a few restaurant cleaning best practices that prevent pests:  

  • Wipe up food residue in coolers. 

  • Always clean equipment quickly after use.

  • Don’t let food-contact surfaces get dirty and greasy.

  • Store food in airtight containers.

  • Move trash bags to the dumpster rather than letting them sit around the kitchen.

  • Capture stray fruit flies with a small cup of soap mixed with tequila or apple cider vinegar.

Of course, don’t hesitate to call in the professionals from pest control when needed. What crawls in the kitchen always makes its way out in one way, shape, or form and you don’t want that to be on a plate or in a glass. 

If you see any of the following signs of pests, don’t wait until you’ve got a full scale invasion on your hands to act. Here are some signs you may have crawly things in your kitchen or behind the bar:

  • Roach or rodent droppings.

  • Shredded cardboard or paper for rodent nesting.

  • Sounds of scratching or skittering in the walls.

  • Cardboard or plastic containers that appear to have been chewed upon.

  • Unusual odors which could be from dead rodents or large roach populations.

  • Small piles of dirt from ant movement.

  • Flying insects around food storage and prep areas (catch them now before they make their way into the dining room, or into someone’s soup).

Much like hair in your food, the signs of pest infestation are enough to make a guests’ stomach turn. An affected kitchen runs the risk of alienating current and would-be guests: All it takes is one poor online review saying there were flies in the air or ants running across the table for your reputation to be tarnished. 

And when the health inspector pays a visit or or receives a report of pests, they can have your restaurant closed down because of sanitation and food safety issues.

Restaurant Cleaning Tip #4: Train Staff to Prioritize Food Safety

In a restaurant, several pairs of hands handle food before it reaches a customer. Educating and training your entire staff, front- and back of house, in proper hygiene, food safety, and overall cleanliness is key to making sure every guest has a safe, sanitary dining experience — and this training is even more crucial during health crises.

Restaurant training is not a one-time thing, especially when it comes to food safety. You need to consistently follow up with your staff when it comes to the restaurant cleaning and food safety standards you have put in place. It’s important to see that everyone is doing things the way they should be done every day, not just the days immediately after a training session. To keep things in check, try the following:

  • Post reminders on particular cleaning procedures in strategic places like above the sink and next to the time clock.

  • Regularly share short training videos with restaurant cleaning tips via emai.l

  • Spot check staff cleaning behavior just as the health department would (grades optional).

  • Celebrate exemplary cleaning habits among your team so others might model their behavior.

Restaurant Cleaning Tip #5: Put Yourself in the Customer’s Shoes

Abiding by Health Department guidelines will do most of the work for you when it comes to maintaining a clean restaurant, but to truly deliver a clean and enjoyable experience for your guests, put yourself in their shoes and make sure you aren’t overlooking any aspects of the dining experience that could use a cleaning. Here are a few things to consider: 

  • Is the restaurant’s entryway tidy and welcoming — the walkway free of litter and the windows clean and sparking?

  • Is the host stand uncluttered, the banquettes free of dust, the menus clean of smudges?

  • Have tables and floors been properly wiped and swept since the last seating, and napkins, condiments and table arrangements reset?

  • Are the bathrooms clean, odor-free, and stocked with toilet paper, towels and soap?

Audit the cleanliness of your dining experience by having a member of your staff have a test meal. From the moment they’re seated until they complete the payment process, have them record any aspects of their dining experience – the menu, the salt and pepper shakers, or the window sills, for example – that need a cleaning. This list will give your team a better idea of areas you may habitually overlook when cleaning your restaurant that could leave a bad taste in your guests mouths. 

How to Make Restaurant Cleaning Second Nature

Health codes are really just the bare minimum for cleanliness. By considering the cleanliness and the ambience of your restaurant from front to back, and from floor to ceiling, you’ll deliver an experience that will delight all the senses and get the thumbs-up from food safety inspectors and customers alike.

Restaurant cleanliness begins with great staff training. Use the above front of house, bar, and back of house restaurant cleaning checklist when creating your server sidework checklists and closing checklists. This way you can make sure that every area of your restaurant is clean and sanitary throughout meal service, upon closing, and when you open your doors the next morning. 

Training Manual Template
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Training Manual Template

Use this restaurant training manual template, a customizable Word Doc, to provide your staff with the rules, guidelines, and clarity they need to do their jobs efficiently.

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