Isn’t it nice to enjoy a meal in a restaurant where you can sit at the table, pick what you want to eat, and let someone else cook it and serve it to you? Hey, they even do the dishes! But never take food safety for granted just because you are at a sit-down restaurant. As we’ve said on other pages, you always want to keep your eyes open and use your best judgment; our objective is to help your best judgment be better.
I’m going to be honest; this is probably one of the hardest pages to write.
"For years I ran Full Service restaurants, working as a chef or manager. My career has taken a different course now, but at the time I churned out soups, sandwiches and salads for my guests each day. So in order to write this I need to reveal some information that I would normally not share with the general public."
We’ll define a Full Service Restaurant as one at which an employee brings your food to you at the table. We’re going to encompass both fine and casual dining, and facilities ranging from mom-and-pop-style eateries to elegant restaurants at massive hotels.
We’ll go over some Red Flags that you should be aware of at a Full Service location. (If you need to know more about Red Flags, click here. If you want to know what to do when you see Red Flags, click here.)
Most big-name restaurants have clearly defined programs to maintain food safety. But that doesn’t mean they’re always the safest places to eat. The profit margin at many restaurants is very small; after paying for the food, the salaries, the building and utilities, the china and glassware, and the taxes, there is very little money left. When budget cuts are made, often what is cut is employee training, including training in food safety. This is not true for all restaurants, but it applies to some. If the cooks and other employees are not taught how to keep your food safe, how safe can you be when you eat there?
Here are a few insiders’ secrets about Full Service restaurants – but don’t say you heard them from me! These aren’t Red Flags, but they’re worthwhile to think about.
When is the best time of day to eat at Full Service restaurants? When they’re busy but not “swamped.” A busy restaurant will pump out fresh food that doesn’t sit for very long in the kitchen. In addition, the restaurant will be fully staffed, which cuts down on the mistakes that can happen. Conversely, if the restaurant is having a very slow time, you might be getting food that has sat for too long. This means both quality and food safety may suffer. There are fewer employees on duty during slow times, which means one person may be doing more than one job. If the location is TOO busy (in restaurant lingo, “in the weeds”), mistakes happen, especially in cooking! You may have ordered the chicken dish you always have, but if the cooks are too busy, they may pull it off the grill before the chicken reaches the proper internal temperature, just to get the job done faster. And at closing time, the cooks are trying to clean up the kitchen and get home; their attention might be diverted. Not long ago a restaurant customer became ill because the cook, who was cleaning the oven with a toxic cleaner, made the guest’s burger without washing his hands.
What are generally the worst days to eat fresh fish and fresh seafood in a restaurant? Usually Sunday and Monday. Most restaurants get their fresh fish just before the busy weekend (Friday or Saturday; a few get some on Sunday, but most don’t). This means that on Sunday you may be eating “fresh” fish that has been sitting in the restaurant’s cooler for two or three days (and possibly up to a week before that at the warehouse). And on Monday, you’re probably eating whatever was over-ordered for the weekend – all the fish they didn’t sell!
What about the Special of the Day? Sometimes it’s anything but “special.” Depending on the restaurant, the special may be something the kitchen prepared too much of a day or two ago and needs to get rid of before it goes bad. Although the low price may be tempting, it may be a price on old food. (To learn – yuck – how food goes bad, click here.)
Lemon for your tea or water? You might get a little more than you expected. Was the lemon cleaned properly before it was cut? Although the acid in the meat of the lemon can fight bacterial growth to an extent, the lemon rind is not able to fight the germs from the servers’ or bartenders’ hands. Whatever that person handled a moment before – credit cards, money, pens, or partially eaten foods from cleared tables – its germs may be on your lemon rind. (For a video link, click here.)
Salads may not be as healthy as you think. All too often, the employee may not have washed his/her hands before making your salad. Again, germs on anything those hands touched earlier is added to the salad. You didn’t order a side of Norovirus with your ranch dressing! (For a video link, click here.)
Now, let’s say you’re at your favorite Full Service restaurant on a good day and at a good time. You’ve ordered dinner with your mind focused on food safety as well as your appetite. What Red Flags do you need to look out for?
(These Red Flags might apply to the Quick Service group as well, but the flag numbers here might be different. To learn how our Red Flag Scale is set up, click here.
Do you see an employee using the restroom and failing to wash his/her hands? This is a Red Flag #8. It’s disgusting to think that people might be touching your food with bathroom-business matter on their hands. Some employees are taught to wash their hands when they return to the kitchen (but how do you know that?), and most locations have their cooks wear gloves. But the matter of hand washing is crucial enough for you to point it out to the manager (be able to give a description of the employee so he/she can address it). See how the manager responds, and decide whether you want to continue your meal.
Do you see a roach, mouse or rat on the premises? This is a Red Flag #9. roaches can carry 25 to 30 different bacteria on them. Mice or rats have no bladder control, so whatever they touch, eat or crawl across is going to have something left on it that we don’t want to be eating. There’s another serious matter here, too. These critters don’t like to be around humans, so they generally hide until people are gone and then come out looking for food. If you see one during normal business hours, chances are it didn’t get enough food the night before because of competition from its many relatives. It’s the sign of a BIG problem. It’s also a sign that the managers aren’t really paying attention to food safety at their location. Best bet? Cancel your order, talk to the manager, and leave.
Have you been served “bad food” (doesn’t smell right, doesn’t taste right, doesn’t taste like it does normally)? This is a Red Flag #7. This judgment is subject to your taste buds and experience; however, if you’ve eaten there before or are familiar with the item you’ve ordered, you may be able to make a good judgment call. If it’s a matter of degree of doneness, like a steak ordered medium well but received rare, or a chicken breast that is still pink, the remedy is usually to have the cooks “re-fire” (restaurant term) the steak and get it to the proper degree of doneness. However, if you’re eating shrimp, salmon, chicken, or anything else, and it doesn’t seem to taste right, talk with the manager or server right away. Most restaurants will gladly replace or substitute a meal that the guest doesn’t think is good. It won’t necessarily be a FREE replacement; they are under no obligation to give food away! But if they do offer you your meal for free, it’s their way of saying, “We’re sorry, and we want to see you back here again.”
Do you see an employee wipe down a booth or chair and then wipe down a table? This is a Red Flag #1. Despite what consumer surveys say, this really isn’t a big deal – if the employee is putting the towel into a solution (of chemicals called sanitizers) that neutralizes germs. While it may not be pleasant to think about, it’s really not that serious.
Do you see a cook touch his face or hair, or cough or sneeze in the food? This is a Red Flag #6. Remember, there are two places where the germs like to hang out on the human body. One is the head/face, and one is the where the bathroom parts are located (if you need more info, please email us or ask your mother). If a food handler touches either of these areas and then touches your food, you may be eating more than you bargained for. This actually happened to me on a recent vacation, and my wife and I were ill all the next day. To learn how to respond to food safety mistakes, click here.
Do you see cooks working without hats or hair restraints on? This is a Red Flag #3. When a cook doesn’t wear a hair restraint (hat, hair net, bandana, visor, etc.), hair can accidentally drop into the food. While it is not pleasant to be the recipient of the surprise hair follicle in your green beans, usually a simple replacement of the dish is the fix. The larger risk is when cooks are constantly pushing their hair out of their faces or eyes; touching the face and hair transfers germs to the hands, and hands transfer the germs to you! If you notice that cooks have no hair restraints on, you might ask about it; however, some restaurants do not require cooks and chefs to wear them.
Is the restroom/washroom dirty? This is a Red Flag #5. Please don’t confuse “new dirt” with “old dirt.” If the guest ahead of you was a slob, that’s not the restaurant’s fault. However, if there appears to be a genuine lack of care taken to keep the restrooms clean, chances are they aren’t taking care to keep the kitchen clean, either, and this makes food safety more risky. Why did we list this as a #5 and not a #4, as we did with Quick Service facilities? A good Full Service restaurant should check restrooms more frequently and have higher standards.
Do you see a lot of flies? This is a Red Flag #4 or #9. As with Quick Service (click here), it depends on where the flies are and what they’re going after. Flies are attracted to solid waste (i.e., dog poop or trash); they pick up the germs from the debris and transfer them to the food they land on, so they have no business being in any restaurant. But if they’re just congregating around the trash areas, or you see only a few here and there, you don’t need to worry so much (#4). If they’re in the kitchen (in numbers), and/or are landing on food as it is being served, then be more concerned (#9). Now, suppose that as you’re eating you see an employee using bug spray to get rid of the flies around the food or the food storage. Make that a Red Flag #9, regardless of how many flies you see! You never, EVER want those chemicals near food! One more thing: insect problems are not the restaurant’s responsibility if you choose to eat outside on their patio.
Do you have the proverbial fly in the soup? This is a Red Flag #8. It applies to anything in your food that shouldn’t be there – a bug, an earring back, a paper clip, or anything else. It shows a clear lack of food safety training or practice on the part of the food handlers. It’s so important that you need to let the manager know about the situation, and then either leave or take a chance with a food replacement. You can make that decision – to go or to stay – using your best judgment. Again, don’t expect the restaurant to do much for you if something flies or crawls into your salad while you’re eating on their patio.