Cheri Schweitzer is a restaurant coach and food safety consultant from Wisconsin. Through her business Credible Consulting, she helps existing restaurants and people wanting to open restaurants with their health and safety needs, as well as providing other services.
We thought we'd chat with Cheri to learn some more about restaurant health and safety. She shared a bunch of tips that managers and back of house staff can learn from. Read on and the next time some customer claims they got sick at your restaurant, you'll know how to handle it.
So Cheri, tell us a little bit about what you do.
I have a background in science and restaurants. I spent some time working in restaurants in college and I have a degree in science and later got a degree as a health inspector, so it kind of all pulled together. My business right now is a combination of food safety, regulatory and operations. A big part of what I do now is help people stay out of trouble with the health department.
What are some things restaurants are commonly failing to address in their food safety training?
One of the big things is cooling. Improper cooling is the number one cause of foodborne illness, closely followed by cross-contamination. Cross-contamination often has to do with hands, like improper glove use or hand washing. It can be from things like storing chicken over salad, but usually it comes from an individual.
I see improper cooling on a large majority of my audits, even with places I audit time and time again. Helping chefs understand the methodology in proper cooling sometimes takes time.
People are often surprised at how long it takes to cool something and the fact is, you have to cool things quick. You have to get to 70 degrees [Fahrenheit] in two hours. With anything more than four inches of food that’s almost impossible. So I teach people, particularly chefs, how to properly cool things, which is different with every food.
What are some things managers can do to prevent common health hazards?
Washing hands in general is a biggie. And checking that things are cooled properly. Don’t cool things more than two inches deep. Don’t get things in the refrigerator too quickly. If something comes out of the oven at 300 degrees, you don’t want to put it right in the fridge because it just warms up your fridge. You can let it cool on the counter until it hits 135.
Using metal pans instead of plastic is also much better. And date marking food. In the US you have to give food at least a seven day date mark. Throw food out after seven days. If it’s food you’ve prepared fresh, throw it out after seven days. If it is opened dairy, throw it out after seven days. I’ve gotten a lot of push back on that one. That’s when I have to go into the science of why foodborne illnesses occur.
How can managers make sure the back of house is taking care to prevent foodborne illnesses?
They have to watch their people and monitor things. Quite a few of my clients use a cooling log I created for them. It’s hard because restaurants are busy, but they try and temp the food every few hours.
Chefs have to make sure that line cooks are not covering the food. Years ago covering food was being pushed, but in reality the health department doesn’t want you to cover food until it’s cool.
"People don’t realize they are technically supposed to wash their hands before putting gloves on. They think gloves are a perfect barrier."
The chef has to set the standard. He has to be clean himself. He has to be washing his hands a lot, so his people see that. Sanitizer buckets are also super important, making sure those are at the correct concentration. Date marking falls on all of the cooks.
How about front of house managers?
I think front of house managers have a more complicated job, because often front of house people want to wear jewelry. Jewelry is a big one. Here in Wisconsin, the food court only allows a wedding band. Personal expression is a big part of front of house, so that makes things harder.
But you can check that people aren’t wiping their hands on their apron, and that they’re keeping their fingernails short. I try to set an example when I do inspections and don’t wear nail polish, because that kind of thing can give physical contamination if it falls in your food.
It comes down to a lot of hand washing for the front of house and their managers. Managers can check that people are washing their hands after someone goes to the bathroom, after a smoke break, after taking out the garbage. You kind of have to harp on them that you are technically supposed to wash your hands before putting gloves on. People don’t realize that, they think gloves are a perfect barrier.
If a guest has a complaint about getting sick from eating at your restaurant, how should a manager address that?
If somebody calls and says they got sick at your restaurant, you can simply say ‘I’m sorry you are feeling sick’. That doesn’t say you did it, but you should be sorry, you should have empathy. Don’t attempt to argue with someone who’s been sick, even if you are more educated and know it’s unlikely they're sick because of eating at your restaurant.
The key is to have a good relationship with your health inspector, and feel comfortable having the customer call them. That’s what I would recommend, because at least in Wisconsin, when someone calls the health department, they have to fill out a form with a three day food history, and the health department investigates it.
"The key is to have a good relationship with your health inspector, and to feel comfortable having the customer call them."
I feel the best way to educate a customer is to not yell at them or shove food safety down their throat even though you probably know it better than them. Just say: 'we’re sorry what happened, we will investigate it on our end, we encourage you to call the in-house inspector and health department.'
What can a manager do in the moment if something is found in the food, like a hair?
I like to use customer service as a way to make it right and then some more. I had a friend who called me up recently. He and his family had dinner at a very nice restaurant, who are a client of mine, and he found a piece of pen in his crab cake. I talked to my client about it a lot, and they didn’t do enough to make it right. The crab cake was comped and a round of drinks was bought for the table.
But I would anticipate that this experience probably ruined his evening. The gentleman has two young children and they probably don’t get out to a nice restaurant that much. So in the moment, you really have to go overboard to make it better. At a corporate level, they later sent the gentleman a gift card for everybody’s meal that night, and that’s the choice I would have made as a general manager that night.
If it’s a hair, it could have been their own hair that just fell, who knows, just make it right. It’s not worth arguing about.