Restaurant inspections can be a dreaded interruption to daily operations. If you’re a restaurant owner or manager, the surprise health inspection can be a time of great agitation and overwhelming anxiety. However, nothing sets off a health inspector’s alarms more than arriving at your door and seeing you instantly turn white and panicky, unintentionally signaling that you are unprepared.
Not to worry though, this can be fixed! If you always keep your business running as if every day is the day of your restaurant inspection – as it very well could be – you will never have to be surprised. In fact, your confidence and ease can make everything go smoother.
Why Restaurant Inspections Are Important
Keep in mind, restaurant inspections are not designed to cause stress to business owners, their goal is to ensure safety for your customers. According to Food Services of America, more than half of all foodborne illnesses are acquired from eating at a restaurant, and the modern automated methods used on beef and poultry have been found to increase the chances of food contamination.
Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that half of all produce has chemical contamination. With this much already against restaurants, it makes it that much more important that food be stored, thawed, and cooked according to strict regulations, and that the restaurant’s kitchens, freezers, and storage areas be kept sanitary and sterile.
Typically, most foodservice operations see a restaurant inspections at minimum once per year – and as many as four times per year!
Violations found by a health inspector could result in fines or being forced to close your doors until conditions are dealt with (resulting in loss of revenue), so restaurant inspections should be taken seriously. Here are a few guidelines to make sure you’re always ready for a surprise restaurant inspection:
- If you don’t have a copy already, make sure to 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.
- Conduct your own surprise inspections in your restaurant based on the local forms to see your restaurant from the inspector’s perspective. This will help you catch any violations before the real thing.
- Implement and maintain an effective HACCP plan. Occasionally hold shift meetings to refresh your employees on proper procedures if you notice errors.
- Set up a maintenance schedule for daily use, and make sure that your employees understand what is needed from them so responsibilities are not shirked.
- Ensure that you have ServSafe-certified food handlers on staff at all times.
- Periodically ask employees safety and sanitation questions about the tasks they are required to perform. 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, this is especially important.
- Correct any mistakes on the spot to prevent employees from forming bad or unsafe habits.
- Keep accurate, organized records about training, HACCP procedures, employee illnesses, and any other relevant information that demonstrates your proper safety practices. Your inspector may ask to see them, so it is best to have them orderly and easily at hand.
Proper Food Storage and Preparation
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 enter our bodies and make us sick. Of course, the most direct and simple way to prevent foodborne illnesses is to properly handle the flow of food, from storage to your patrons’ plates.
Though cooking may seem like a more direct link to preparing meals, the storage step of the food handling process is incredibly important. All food must be stored in the correct place and within safe temperatures. Always store food at least 6 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 such drips. These are red flags during restaurant inspections.
Additionally, 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. It is also important that you remove only as much food from the cooler 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, while cooking does reduce harmful pathogens, it does not destroy all of the toxins they may have produced. Therefore, you still need to handle food correctly before cooking it.
Serving Your Customers
When serving food, all tableware should be clean and sanitized. How can you expect to pass your restaurant inspections if you're restaurant isn't clean?
Make sure your serving staff never holds 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
To prevent food handlers from contaminating ready-to-eat food, it is important to put a personal hygiene program in place.
Keeping hands clean is the most important part of personal hygiene and is essential to preventing cross-contamination and foodborne illness. It may seem like an obvious step, but many people are not washing their hands properly, or as often as they need to (when using the restroom, after handling raw food, after touching hair or face, after handling money, etc.).
First, hands should always be washed in a designated handwashing sink, not one that is used for food prep or dishwashing. Second, 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.
In addition, make sure employees maintain suitable nail lengths and 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. Also, 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 (i.e., when taking out the garbage or using the restroom).
Cleaning and Sanitizing
The reasons for ensuring overall cleanliness in your restaurant are the same as the necessity for personal hygiene as well as proper food preparation and storage. All regulations regarding cleanliness of the kitchen, utensils, and the employees exist because they each are involved in the food preparation process, and therefore have the potential to contaminate food when not properly cleaned.
Every restaurant should have a daily cleaning schedule for employees working both in the front of the house and back of the house. This will ensure that dirt and contaminants cannot build up to a point that becomes unmanageable and unsanitary.
If you’re wondering how often you should be cleaning certain areas of your establishment to pass your restaurant inspections, here’s a quick checklist:
- Daily: Clean all counters and prep areas, under-counter shelving, and shelves inside the refrigerator. Clean all small equipment, food prep tools, and dishwasher surfaces. Sweep and mop all floors and clean the floor drains.
- Weekly: Clean vents above the grills to prevent fires caused by grease buildup. Clean all gaskets on the refrigerator and oven. Clean underneath the fryer wells, inside the ice machines, and all the walls around equipment. Clean trash bins and all internal fan guards. Defrost small freezers to prevent too much ice from forming.
- Monthly: Give a deep clean to your ceiling vents, floor drains, floor mats, and any rolling carts.
- Quarterly: Clean all dumpsters inside and outside of your establishment. Clean staircases, storage areas, and ventilation filters on the outside of the premises.
Keep the Pests Out
Then there are the unwelcome diners – the rodents and insects that will be drawn to the smell of food and come in droves. Oh, if only they were paying customers!
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, saying that they're an eyesore to customers and can result in a restaurant inspection failure is a tad of an understatement.
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, through which an animal may enter. 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, 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 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. You want to provide an open space near any doorway to discourage rodents, which prefer to sneak along amid clutter and structures that offer cover. So if there is 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 just in case one does 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 any. 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. 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. And no reward could top that!