As the restaurant industry comes to terms with a variety of factors, including declining traffic counts and increasing labor costs, operators continue to look for any way to enhance unit economics. These steps may include updating the menu and implementing an innovative new design, among various other options. The areas in which operators can’t, under any circumstances, cut corners are food quality and food safety.

Indeed, no matter your role in the foodservice industry, everyone agrees food safety is a critical element in any brand promise.

It’s easy to believe food safety applies to how a concept sources ingredients but it has many tentacles and reaches into the deepest corners of any foodservice operation. Food safety can affect operating parameters, processes, procedures, platforms (equipment and technology) used, design and people deployment.

Given that everyone agrees on the importance of food safety leads me to one simple question for all operators: What are you doing about it?

Those of us that have been in this business long enough can remember the e-coli issues that hit the hamburger segment several decades ago. At that point in my career I was at Burger King and remember vividly that to combat the sales drop, the quick-service chain started promoting the great and unique chicken products on the menu at the time. The chain promoted this so heavily, Burger King almost became Chicken King for a period of time. Similar scenarios played out at other fast-food hamburger concepts.

In recalling this scenario, it’s important to note that Burger King did not have any issues with e-coli at the time. But because it was in the same segment as the chain affected by e-coli issues, Burger King felt the impact and had to respond to protect sales and profitability. This goes to show what happens to one player in the industry can easily impact others. So you should care about what your competitors are doing about food safety, as you do with their marketing and other programs.

More recently, Chipotle has had some well-documented food safety issues. Much like chains in the hamburger segment, the fast-casual giant will eventually rebound from this – it just may take longer than most anticipated. Once the chain puts its food safety woes behind, Chipotle may have a different business model, but as long as unit economics remain solid and food quality remains high, this brand will thrive once again.

Impact on Efficiency

How can food safety techniques impact the efficiency of a concept and the cost of running a concept?

Well some food safety techniques come with small price tags, while others come with a high cost. Sometimes implementing food safety techniques can be complicated. In other instances, things are pretty simple. Some programs require significant follow up, while others do not. One thread that weaves through all food safety activities, though, is the human element, since most programs involve a person doing something to control and manage this area. My suggestion is to keep it simple when developing food safety programs.

I am going to start with a very simple practice that I came across while I was taking a “Workation” with my family at a Nickelodeon resort in the Dominican Republic. The concept had a few buffet-style foodservice operations. A peculiar practice that struck me immediately upon arriving was that as the host sat your party, they would produce a bottle of hand sanitizer and suggest everyone at the table take a little and rub it on their hands. Given that customers can introduce pathogens into a foodservice environment, this serves as a good example of a low-cost, simple application that requires minimal follow up. Certainly, this can’t solve every food safety challenge an operation faces, including eliminating norovirus, but it does provide one more level of security and exhibits the operation’s commitment to maintaining a food-safe environment.

Supplier Assistance

Sometimes the suppliers can help with how their organizations process and package food products. For example, using precooked proteins that staff simply reheat can be a good idea if these ingredients do not compromise food quality. Precooked products can help with menu consistently, too. But all of this has to fit within the concept’s brand promise.

The application of technology represents another significant opportunity when it comes to food safety. From hand-washing counters that track how often staff perform this all-important task to technology that enables documentation and management of critical process points, a lot has transpired in this area. Some of it has be driven by mandates, but others by the realization of brands of how important food safety is in the maintaining the brand value and sales.

I always ask myself, what can the industry do to become more aggressive in teaching customers about what they can do themselves to help have a food safe environment? I clearly got the message from the hand sanitizing that they did at the Nickelodeon resort I mentioned above. In addition to providing an initial level of protection, it certainly made all of the people in my party think about having our hands clean. Definitely a good first step!

So what are you doing about optimizing your food safety practices from an equipment, design and brand execution perspective?

Be safe, my friends!