Create a Cleaner Restaurant Environment Through Strict Controls, No-Touch Equipment

No one likes to think about it, but our everyday environment teems with germs. Most of them are harmless—
according to the Mayo Clinic website, less than 1% cause disease, and some bacteria that live in your body are even good for you. But pizzerias provide havens for some types of bacteria and viruses that can give your customers an infection or send them to the hospital with food poisoning. And that can result in a temporary shutdown—and disastrous public relations—for a restaurant.

Studies by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that more than 50% of foodservice workers don’t follow safe hygiene practices. The most common transmission of stomach viruses and foodborne disease in restaurants can be attributed to unwashed hands. According to CDC statistics, one out of every six Americans will catch an illness from unclean hands each year. With those odds, restaurant managers must take the lead in monitoring and enforcing good hygiene practices.

According to Mark Nealon, a former New York City health inspector and owner of the consulting company SAFE Restaurants, the biggest sources of germs in the pizzeria are poor hygiene, sick workers and cross-contamination between raw foods and ready-to-eat foods. “It can be easy to overlook good cleaning practices when the restaurant is at its busiest and the main concern becomes the orders rather than proper sanitary techniques,” Nealon says. “It falls on management to stress good cleaning practices at all times.”

Some common illnesses that can be transmitted in a restaurant include salmonellosis, listeriosis, staph, Norwalk virus, hepatitis A and shigellosis. Employees can infect others if they do not wash their hands effectively or if they prepare food when they have open sores. Workers who don’t appear to be sick can still transmit diseases, even weeks after they have been infected. Staff can also be exposed to germs by improperly cleaning restroom facilities or by touching dirty dishes and utensils. That’s why it is crucial that your employees wash their hands often, even if they haven’t used the restroom or come into contact with raw food. And common sense says that the manager should always send a sick employee home.

“Good overall training is essential,” Nealon says. “It’s the responsibility of the management to provide enough conveniently located hand washing sinks and to ensure that the sinks are adequately provided with soap, hand drying devices and signs reminding workers to wash their hands frequently.”

A Culture of Food Safety

Most employees would never intentionally spread their germs. “One barrier seems to be time, but, when digging deeper, the real problem appears to be time management and good organizational skills,” says Dr. Catherine Strohbehn, an extension specialist and professor at Iowa State University. “The person in charge needs first to establish a culture of food safety. This is done through infrastructure—communication of expectations—and monitoring—are employees doing what they are supposed to be doing when they are supposed to be doing it? Tools and procedures must be worker-friendly.”

According to Strohbehn, detergent, water and chemical sanitizers are generally effective against foodborne and disease-carrying germs. “We use the phrase ‘dedicated and designated tools’ for cleaning, which means the wiping cloths are earmarked for cleaning purposes only for food contact areas—no dual use in restrooms,” she says.

“Although there are many new cleaning systems on the market each month, it comes down to basic cleaning and sanitation procedures,” notes Dr. Angela Shaw, an assistant professor of food safety at Iowa State University. “You must clean first to remove the dirt and fat before you can sanitize and kill the bacteria. There has to be some dedication to daily cleaning and sanitation to ensure that buildup of fat and dirt does not occur, and, if it has occurred, then you should schedule a night to just clean and scrub. Like my mother says, put some elbow grease into it. Management has to allow time for cleaning throughout the shift, and not just at the end of the day when everyone is tired and wants to go home.”

An observational study by Strohbehn and her colleagues, published in the Journal of Food Protection in 2010, found restaurant staff may need to wash their hands an average of up to 28 times per hour, based on what food codes dictate as hand washing occasions. Unfortunately, Strohbehn says, establishments often don’t comply with these codes. “Managers should monitor supplies for hand washing, noting how much soap and disposable towels are being used,” recommends Strohbehn. “Managers should look at work assignments, too, in an effort to reconfigure task assignments to reduce the need to wash hands.”

The Clean Hands Doctrine

Plain, common soap has been the hand washing “tool” of choice for at least 5,000 years. But some advanced technologies can help ensure better sanitation practices in the restaurant environment. Strohbehn suggests taking advantage of equipment that encourages and monitors proper hand washing. “One tool is a digitized soap dispenser, which beeps when soap is dispensed, and then beeps twice after 20 seconds, the recommended period of time for proper hand washing. These dispensers also count how many times soap is dispensed.”

Another innovation in hygiene monitoring systems allows managers to get real-time alerts and recorded data on employee hand washing. With some systems, employees wear ID tags that transmit a signal to the soap dispenser and room sensors. If an employee leaves the bathroom or designated zones without washing his hands, the tag emits a “chirp” as a reminder. And if the employee still doesn’t wash up, the manager on duty can instantly receive an email or text alert, and that event can be recorded. “Whatever combination of alerts you use, awareness of violations has an immediate effect on decreasing their number,” says Steve Russak, COO of CloudClean in Edgewater, New Jersey. “The curve crashes down to almost zero once people are reminded to wash and know they are being monitored.”

Monitoring systems can be used throughout the pizzeria and can be set to any protocols established by the restaurant’s management. “You can create zones, similar to a hospital’s ‘wash-in’ or ‘wash-out’ zones,” Russak says. “In a ‘dirty’ zone, for example, where raw meat is processed, the system makes sure employees wash up before they leave the zone so that they aren’t cutting up chicken and then opening the freezer with dirty hands. If they don’t use the wash station before they leave that zone, the system monitors and records that violation.” Common zones include the restroom, the break room, the back door and the raw food prep station.

Using these advanced technologies, management can choose the types of alerts they prefer, and, for multiunit operators and chains, data can even be sent straight to the corporate office, where trends can be analyzed by store or by region. Systems with ID tags can also emit interval alerts as dictated by the pizzeria operator. “At each predetermined interval, a ‘chirp’ reminds every employee to wash, no matter what they have been doing, and any wash station will monitor that,” Russak says. “It records and captures the event if they miss that wash, just as if they’d left the bathroom without washing.”

Monitoring systems offer a marketing advantage as well. Some restaurants promote their use of the technologies with signage in the restrooms. “We find that it’s a very powerful force to consumers,” Russak says. “They have a choice of one restaurant over another and, if they know you are going the extra mile to protect their health and welfare, it is good for business.”

Going Touch-Free

Once hands get washed, they still need to be dried, and, ironically, that can lead to another opportunity for contamination. A 2011 study by the American Journal of Infection Control determined that certain bacteria, some with the potential to make people ill, could be found on unused paper towels. The study also showed that those bacteria could transfer to freshly washed hands. Fortunately, automated hand dryers minimize touch points in restrooms and hand wash stations. Manufacturers say hand dryers that utilize HEPA filters can remove 99.9% of bacteria from the air stream.

According to Patrick Rathbun, strategic communications manager for Excel Dryer in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, the new generation of automatic hand dryers can help reduce germs in both the bathroom and at hand washing stations. “Installation of high-speed, energy-efficient hand dryers eliminates the hygiene concerns associated with paper towels, such as empty paper towel dispensers, blocked toilets and bacteria-laden refuse on the floors and in waste receptacles,” says Rathbun. “This littering results in unnecessary waste for a custodian or maintenance person to clean up.”

According to Rathbun, his research suggests that, when a restroom’s paper towel dispensers are empty, patrons are less likely to wash their hands, potentially spreading germs and bacteria to other areas of the restroom and then to the restaurant’s other customers and employees.

A dirty bathroom is not merely a germ factory—it’s a huge turnoff for your customers. According to a poll by the marketing research firm Harris Interactive, 88% of people surveyed think dirty facilities reflect poorly on the cleanliness of the entire restaurant, and 29% said they would not return to an establishment with a dirty lavatory. Fortunately, no-touch technology makes the distasteful chore of cleaning a restaurant bathroom easier and safer.

Researchers at Ecolab in Saint Paul, Minnesota, analyzed more than 1,000 samples that showed touch-free cleaning caddy systems get restrooms 54% cleaner than the traditional “spray, wipe and mop” method. No-touch systems automatically dispense sanitizing cleaner in proper amounts, followed by a rinse-off and wet vacuuming; the process practically eliminates the need for employees to touch surfaces, according to Seth Raley, director of foodservice specialty and programs for Ecolab. “Disinfectant products are consistently applied to all surfaces in the restroom—versus with a spray bottle, which provides inconsistent coverage,” Raley says. “An onboard wet vacuum ensures germs are gathered and removed from the restroom, as opposed to mops and buckets, which simply spread germs around.”

Research by Kaivac in Hamilton, Ohio, shows that spray-and-vac machines can remove 60 times more bacteria than traditional methods. “Mops and wipers tend to spread contamination, while the spray-and-vac units remove it,” says Tom Morrison, Kaivac’s vice president of marketing. “The indoor pressure washer flushes soils out of grout lines and tight places that mops can’t reach. The operator then vacuums the floor dry, thoroughly removing soils, moisture and bio-pollution from surfaces, grout lines and crevices and leaving the floor virtually soil-free and dry.”

The entire no-touch cleaning process is designed to be safer for employees and customers. Morrison adds, “Fewer contaminated touch or contact points means fewer places where hands and other objects can pick up germs and spread them around, causing illness or tainted food.” Morrison says a touchless system can also save the pizzeria money in the long run—if you factor in labor and reduced chemical use costs—since the power lies in the process, not in the chemicals.

Of course, no one wants to think about germs while trying to focus on great food and customer service, but, as more customers fret over the issue of restaurant sanitation, managers need to worry about it, too. With the latest technologies, keeping nasty microbes in check is easier than ever, but management must also set rules for better germ control and enforce them every day. In this case, the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” couldn’t be more accurate.


Washing Up

The best cleaning technology and products in the world aren’t enough if management and employees fail to take advantage of them and use safe practices. The Handwashing for Life Institute (handwashingforlife.com), a global organization devoted to reducing infections caused by poor hand washing hygiene practices, and Iowa State University Extension Service offer the following tips for helping to keep your pizzeria germ-free:

  • Soap Dispensers—Eliminate open-top soap dispensers; they can harbor microbes and be a source of contamination. Install a closed-bag system, preferably equipped with a device for counting the number of times it is used so management can monitor employees’ hand washing behaviors.

  • Paper Towels—As wet hands readily transfer pathogens to food, utensils and surfaces, install touch-free, single-use paper towel machines. Clean the dispenser parts frequently with a quality sanitizer.

  • Hand Sanitizers—Install hand sanitizing stations in kitchen areas where it is not practical to install a full hand wash station. Ensure that waitstaff has easy access to these stations at or near work areas.

  • Water Temperature—For proper sanitization, the ideal water temperature is 100°F and flows at two gallons per minute. A comfortable, yet sufficiently hot, temperature will help encourage frequency of washing, while strong flow is critical for effective washing.

  • Sinks and Faucets—If you currently have hand-operated taps or buttons, consider replacing them with automatic or hands-free appliances. Replace highly grooved taps with smooth surface taps for easy cleaning and sanitizing. If you have regular taps, ensure that surfaces are sanitized during each shift. Place a sanitizing spray bottle at each hand wash station.

  • Effective Communication—Employ oral and written messages consistently to motivate employees to use safe food handling behaviors.

  • Be a Role Model—Serve as an example to your employees and use safe practices yourself.

  • The Stick and the Carrot—Implement informal and formal disciplinary strategies for employees that don’t follow proper cleanliness procedures. Recognize and reward the ones that exhibit safe food handling behaviors.


Cleaning Contact

Cintas, 866-320-2901, cintas.com
CloudClean, 800-627-6368, cloudclean.com
Ecolab, 800-321-3687, ecolab.com
Excel Dryer, 800-255-9235, exceldryer.com
Instant-Off, 800-972-8348, instant-off.com
Kaivac, 800-287-1136, kaivac.com
SAFE Restaurants, 516-679-6827, saferestaurants.com
Swisher, 877-7SWISHER, swisherhygiene.com

Michelle McAnally is PMQ’s food editor.