Restaurant inspections can be a dreaded interruption to daily operations. If you’re a restaurant owner or manager, a surprise health inspection can cause overwhelming anxiety – but nothing sets off a health inspector’s mental alarms more than arriving at your door and seeing you panic, letting on that you’re unprepared.
Keep in mind that restaurant inspections don’t exist to stress out business owners: Their goal is to ensure the safety of your customers.
According to WebMD, people are twice as likely to get food poisoning by eating at a restaurant than at home. Additionally, the modern automated processing methods used on meat products have been found to increase the chances of food contamination – and produce isn’t totally safe from contamination either.
Because of this, it’s crucial that food be stored, thawed, and cooked according to strict regulations, and that the restaurant's kitchens, freezers, and storage areas be kept sanitary. After all, a customer who suspects that eating at your restaurant made them even a little sick are never coming back.
Typically, most foodservice operations see a restaurant inspection at minimum once per year – and as many as four times per year.
Violations found by a health inspector could result in fines or, in more extreme cases where many violations occur, being forced to close your doors until conditions are improved, resulting in loss of revenue.
However, if you always run your restaurant as if every day is inspection day – as any day very well could be – you will never be caught off-guard. In fact, your confidence and ease can make the process go more smoothly.
Before we move onto the checklist, here are some restaurant safety best practices to keep in mind every single day.
- Consult your local health department for food code regulations for your state. Though all codes are variations of the model proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no national standard code. Each state makes its own decisions on what goes into these codes. By locating a copy of local standards, you’ll know exactly what inspectors are looking for. Click here to find your state’s food code.
- Conduct your own surprise inspections in your restaurant based on the local regulations to see your restaurant from the inspector’s perspective. This will help you catch any violations before the real thing. Be extremely meticulous in doing these checks.
- Implement and maintain an effective HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) plan. Here's the latest HAACP guide found on the FDA's website. Occasionally hold shift meetings to refresh your employees on proper hazard prevention procedures.
- Send sick staff home. Getting someone to cover a shift last minute or running a restaurant while short-staffed is never fun, but it’s also not worth the risk of keeping a sick staff member working, as they could easily contaminate food and endanger a guest.
- Set up a daily maintenance schedule for use, and make sure that your employees understand what is needed from each of them so responsibilities aren’t passed around or avoided.
- Make sure that all your cooks and kitchen workers are ServSafe-certified.
- Periodically ask employees safety and sanitation questions about their tasks. This will prepare them for any questions they may get from the inspector. If there is a certain shift that doesn’t perform as well as others, consider running a training session for your staff members that are lagging.
- Correct any food handling mistakes on the spot to prevent employees from forming bad or unsafe habits.
- Keep accurate and organized records about training, HACCP procedures, and employee illnesses that demonstrate your adherence to safety practices. Your inspector may ask to see them, so it is best to have them orderly and easily at hand.
Health Inspection Checklist for Restaurants
Ultimately, the food code was created in order to prevent bacteria and other contaminants from coming in contact with ready-to-eat foods that can make us sick. Of course, the most direct and simple way to prevent food-borne illnesses is to properly handle all food, from storage to your guests’ plates. Here’s our checklist of 23 things to make sure you’re doing.
This list is not exhaustive – consult your local guidelines for the most accurate health code requirements and information.
Though cooking may seem like a more direct link to preparing meals, the storage step of the food handling process is incredibly important, too.
All food must be stored in the correct place and within safe temperatures.
Always store food at least six inches off the ground and never store raw meats or other dripping, uncooked food above ready-to-eat ingredients.
Likewise, your foods should be properly wrapped or secured in containers to prevent contamination from drips.
Make sure your perishable food makes it into the freezer or fridge before it reaches the temperature danger zone between 41°F and 135°F.
Check your appliances periodically with a thermometer to make sure the internal temperature is at the approved 40°F or below.
Preparation and Cooking
The first rule of safe food prep is to prevent cross-contamination. Use separate cutting boards, utensils, and other surfaces to prepare raw or allergen-inducing foods. Wash them with hot soapy water after use before using them on ready-to-eat foods. This is where a HACCP program can come in handy; color coordinate your prep tools so you never cross-contaminate. Use a sanitizing solution when applicable.
Remove only as much food from the fridge or freezer as you can reasonably prepare before food leaves the safe temperature zone.
When cooking food, particularly raw meats, poultry, and fish, ensure that all food is heated to the safe minimum internal temperature. Always keep a food thermometer on hand for this purpose. Keep in mind that while cooking does reduce harmful pathogens, it does not destroy all of the toxins they may have produced. You still need to handle food correctly before cooking it.
Serving Your Customers
When serving food, all tableware should be clean and sanitized so make sure your serving staff never hold dishes by the top or edge: Bare hands should never come in contact with food or the surfaces the food touches. This goes for flatware and glassware as well.
Though it may sound like a no-brainer, never re-serve food that was previously served to another customer – even if it looks untouched. Always assume it is contaminated.
When holding food on a buffet or in the kitchen waiting to be served, make sure it remains within safe temperatures at all times. Hot food should be held at 140°F or higher and cold food should be held at 40°F or lower. Use chafing dishes, heat lamps, or ice, respectively, to maintain these temperatures. Check temperatures periodically with a thermometer – your restaurant's inspector will be sure to do so.
Maintain Personal Hygiene
It's important to have a personal hygiene program in place to prevent food handlers from contaminating ready-to-eat food
Hands should always be washed in a designated handwashing sink, not one that is used for food prep or dishwashing.
Wash hands for no less than 20 seconds in water that is at least 100°F, or as hot as you can stand. Make sure to wash hands and arms and clean under fingernails and between fingers. Never use hand sanitizers in place of washing, only after you’ve washed with hot water and soap.
Make sure employees maintain suitable nail lengths and properly cover any cuts or wounds.
Put on a new pair of single-use gloves at the start of every food-handling task and change immediately if they become dirty or torn. Make sure to wear the proper size gloves, and never blow into them or roll them to make them easier to put on – this will contaminate the clean gloves.
Food handlers should not wear any jewelry on their hands or arms, except for plain band rings.
Aprons should be worn whenever prepping food, but should be removed whenever leaving the prep area (like when taking out the garbage or using the restroom).
Keep the Pests Out
Unfortunately, it's very likely that rodents and insects will be drawn to the smell of your restaurant's food and come in droves. Not only do rodents and other pests eat up your food supplies but they can also bring with them a wealth of health concerns and other dangers. Plus, they're a major turnoff for customers and can result in a restaurant inspection failure.
Here are a few pointers on keeping them out of your food and away from your restaurant:
Eliminate entry points. Make sure there are no holes in window screens or broken areas of door sweeps. Doors leading outside should also have self-closing hinges, and you should not have them propped open unsupervised when carrying things in or out through them. Walls should be checked as well – both inside and outside – for holes or cracks, and any that you find should be filled or covered. Keep an eye out for any telltale signs of visitors, such as droppings or evidence of chewing on wood or furnishings.
Prevent easy access to attractants. Don’t give these visitors anything to find in the first place. Keep the floors and food preparation surfaces clear of crumbs or spillage, especially overnight, and store food in containers that seal tight.
Bring trash outside regularly so that it doesn’t pile up inside and create a strong attractant for rodents and insects.
Reduce outdoor clutter. The outside of your restaurant needs to be kept clean as well. Use trash cans that have tight-fitting lids, and make sure any dumpsters out back are not near any rear entrances. Provide an open path near any doorway to discourage rodents, which prefer to sneak along amid clutter and structures that offer cover. If there's any vegetation nearby, trim it back so it can’t be used as a hidden approach to your door.
Implement rodent control methods. Set traps in case any rodents or insects manage to get inside. Poisons and chemicals are not appropriate for areas where food is prepared, so look for glue traps that do not use poison. Open traps are also unwise, but there are traps that the glue boards can fit inside, which can then be reused again with a fresh board when the old one is discarded.
Time to Ace Your Restaurant Inspection
Follow these tips and you should be prepared and at ease when the inspector next comes calling. Remember to consult your local guidelines for the most accurate information. There may not be any prize or reward for passing your inspection with flying colors, but the high grade you receive will keep guests returning to your restaurant – and encourage new ones to visit.