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Sweating the Health Department Visit?

It is 10:30am. The prep chefs have been in since 8am, and the line cooks and chefs arrived about a half hour ago. You hear a tap at the back door and you get up from your desk to allow the waitstaff in. Just as you are about to lock the door, there is a person walking towards the restaurant, whom you really do not have time for, today, or on any other day. But, you have no choice, it is the health inspector. You can’t lock the door and walk away as if you never saw them to head off and warn the staff, ‘cause you’ve already made eye contact. So, you push out your best sincere smile, welcome them in the warm kitchen, and offer them a cup of coffee.

You have done what you can, the countless meetings and harping over standards. But is that enough? No. We all know that just as soon as you might have chided or even requested respectfully that one of your cooks or servers be more thorough with cleaning efforts, just as soon as you, the manager or owner turn your back, they’re rolling their eyes or flipping you off. The boring meetings about complying with health standards is not enough. Action, documentation, and follow-up are going to be your best course for preventing a most humiliating and reputation-damaging closure by the health department.

Course of action…

The foundation of cleanliness starts with the hygiene and overall appearance of your staff. If they do not care about themselves or how they take care of themselves, they are going to care less about your restaurant.  Maybe the cooks are behind the line and do not have contact with the public, but it  does not grant them the license to be slobs.

As the manager and/or owner, you should not have to shoulder this responsibility on your own. Make sure the lead chef is overseeing the hygiene and uniform condition of their staff. Likewise for the lead server. The sole job as a lead is not to make sure the front-of-the-house staff has good knowledge of the menu, greeting and service standards.  Request they assure the FOH is looking, and uh, smelling fresh as well.

The details…

1.  Temperature logs. Every restaurant has a steam line, reach-ins, refrigeration, a dish station. Make sure each line cook, chef, and even dishwasher has a thermometer with them. Do a walk around and see that every reach-in and walk-in have thermometers.

  • The correct temperatures are not only key and one of the first things a health department will check, this is the standard of how you keep and store food.  Food is your business, spoiled food stored in incorrect temperatures is costly to replace, but also dangerous to be serving to the public.  It can easily be a liability just as much as it can be an asset.
  • Temperatures should be regularly documented–once before service and before closing should be mandatory.  Place a documentation log in a plastic cover hanging in the walk-in(s) and on the reach-ins.
  • In the summertime, make at least one check in the middle of the day mandatory.  A lot of equipment, especially cooling equipment, works extra hard in the heat and is prone to break down or be sluggish.  A malfunction or worse can occur and no one will notice until it is too late.
  • Steam table temperatures.  Hot food has a required temperature too.  Also, make sure the lead chef is aware his staff is reheating food first on the stove top, not to be slowly warmed up to temp in the steam table!  There should be no short cuts for food that has the potential to make people very sick or worse.
  • Don’t forget the dish station. The dishwasher should also monitor the temperature of the water he is washing with or what the automated machine is putting out.  Make sure they know how to check it and have them document it in a separate log.

2.  Whew! Next. Every station should have a container under their counter with sanitizing or bleach water. Before any other task at the start of a shift, this is the very first thing which should be done!

3.  Food checks. The lead chef should walk through each section and taste the food! This is something easily overlooked and typically only noticed when a plate is sent back to the kitchen for an ingredient being spoiled or old.

4.  Containers. Make sure each container is labeled with the item it holds and the date in which it was made. Those used during service should be swapped out for clean ones, placing the contents in the clean container and wrapped tightly. I refer back to my previous point, if the contents are still fresh and usable! The label and its date, should be rewritten on the new container.

5.  Steam tables should be drained and cleaned out after each shift.

6.  Cleaning standards. At the end of each shift, make sure the kitchen staff and wait staff clean the reach-ins and walk-ins. You know, the gross condensation build-up pooling at the bottom, usually slopping around with bits of food. Clean handles in- and outside walls. Sweep and mop floors, don’t forget spaces under equipment.

7.  Storage! Along with FIFO, make sure the order in which the food is stored is correct. And slap the dumb line cook on the back of the head please, for placing any raw chicken or other meats on the top shelf! It is essential for every employee to know the order of how to store food on the shelves to avoid cross-contamination!

8.  Prep areas. Ensure your prep chefs are cooling food items down correctly using an ice bath or ice wand. Make sure all their equipment is properly cleaned and stored as well. Greasy dust and food particles build up quickly in storage areas in a commercial kitchen and should be cleaned at least weekly.

9.  Grease traps, stove tops, ovens. If you don’t have a professional service come in to clean the grease traps, have your dishwasher run them through the machine. Ensure the line cooks are cleaning the stove tops and sending the burners, grates and drip pans are cleaned regularly and sent to the dish station.

One last thing. A health board will request the owner or manager have a ServSafe certification, but as it is the responsibility of your lead chef and server to keep standards, it might be a good idea for them to be certified and current. It not only distributes the responsibility, but eases much headache.

There you have it. They are only 9 points, but they are some very important nine points. If you can not seem to get your staff to follow these aspects in maintaining the cleanliness of your restaurant, a mandatory team clean (consequences to be had for no-shows), once a week when they normally have the day off or your establishment is closed will drive it home. With a team effort, there should be no reason for sweating a surprise health inspection and you won’t have to force that smile so much.

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