By Lauren Solar
A post-COVID world still seems like an unrealistic dream, but before long we will emerge from the pandemic. How have these changes affected foodservice operators?
The National Restaurant Association reports that “more than half of restaurant operators said it would be a year or more before business conditions return to normal. Food, labor, and occupancy costs are expected to remain elevated, and continue to impact restaurant profit margins in 2022. 96% of operators experienced supply delays or shortages of key food or beverage items in 2021 – and these challenges will likely continue in 2022.”
Experts in many parts of the world predict that the trend towards less dine-in will continue. Take out, food delivery services and DIY food kits will continue to be the key to retaining customers. However, this leads to concerns about food safety, especially regarding raw foods sent in home cooking kits, in the ‘post-order supply chain’. “You should know whether the delivery service’s drivers have any training regarding potential food safety hazards in their deliveries. Are there any time and temperature guarantees?” asks Margaret Spence, Master Trainer/Consultant at TrainCan Inc. a leading provider of food safety training, in discussing the continuing proliferation of food delivery services. “Do they deliver directly after pickup or do they pick up several other orders at once? And what happens if they leave the package on the porch for hours?”
Perhaps it seems unrealistic to expect these delivery services to offer food safety training to their drivers but she adds that “if someone gets food poisoning, they aren’t going to go after the delivery service, they are going to go after the restaurant.” To protect food establishments, Ms. Spence recommends, at a minimum, that restaurants keep a delivery log, showing when the order was received, when it was ready for take– out and when it was picked up. For the DIY food kits, she recommends giving the driver a one-page safety sheet listing which foods need to be kept at what temperatures.
Many other COVID-driven trends will likely only improve food safety. Frequent sanitization of common surfaces including menus, tables and seats, condiment containers and payment machines will likely remain a necessary and visible part of food service. Customers report feeling more secure in being able to see this cleaning taking place between each seating. A continuing emphasis on personal hygiene, frequent hand-washing and numerous sanitizing stations provided to both staff and customers, can only improve food safety. “Physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and numerous sanitizing stations provided to both staff and customers, can only improve food safety”, Spence says.
Cleaning, sanitizing and personal hygiene, including not working when ill, have always been a key part of food safety but COVID really forced food establishments to step up their commitment to these protocols. “Further safety practices such as mask wearing, physical distancing, additional sanitizing and dedicated teams of workers with health checks for staff were all introduced to battle this highly infectious virus.”
Health checks for staff raises an issue that could be a major stumbling block in the recovery of the food service sector: staffing. Restaurants Canada reports that “42% of restaurants expect the number of unfilled positions to increase: up to as high as 50% for quick-service restaurants vs 39% for table-service restaurants. Across all segments, roughly four in 10 respondents were unsure if the number of unfilled positions would improve or get worse.” Restaurants report pressure to return to pre-pandemic hours and levels of service but doing so while short staffed will only compromise food safety.
As well, dealing with sick food-service staff is a continuing conundrum. According to the Shift Project, the largest source of data on work scheduling for hourly service workers, “before the current public health crisis, we surveyed more than 30,000 retail, grocery and food-service workers. More than half of these workers (55%) reported lacking access to paid sick leave.” Government programs have helped during COVID but once those programs are gone, employers and staff will be facing the same difficulty. Many employers can’t afford to pay staff for sick days while also paying someone to replace them as they also can’t afford to be short-staffed.
Many of those working in food service are just barely able to make ends meet financially and missed shifts can mean the difference between paying the monthly bills or not. Staff members will not want to call in sick, especially those whose pay is substantially based on earning tips. Even those with paid sick leave will resist using it if they rely on their tips to supplement low hourly pay. And yet, having sick people working in food service will also not help establishments survive the next several difficult years of COVID recovery.
As with so much that has been affected by the pandemic, a return to ‘normal’ doesn’t seem to mean a return to things as they once were. Too much has changed, for better and for worse. The food service industry and food safety will never be the same.
About the Author:
Lauren Solar has been a freelance writer and editor for over thirty years, writing mostly on health-related topics and for not-for-profit organizations. Because of her own food allergies and her extensive background with allergy advocacy groups, she helped create the Food Allergen Food Safety Training offered by TrainCan and is a certified trainer on this topic. She has also done a great deal of technical and business writing.