By Greg Staley

We’re now more than a year past the time when COVID-19 led to restaurants shutting down, moving outdoors, leaning heavily on delivery and restricting dining capacity. Virtually every restaurant had to adapt their operations in some way. While the more common things such as takeout, online ordering and mask wearing have understandably gotten a lot of attention, the pandemic has shifted operations in more subtle ways.

One thing many people may not have realized is how much food safety has changed. Because the fundamentals have remained the same — storing at proper temperatures, avoiding cross contamination, thorough cooking, handwashing and more — you could have missed things like how cognitive overload, turnover and supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 have had an effect on food safety processes.

These changes are easy to miss but critical to preserving brand reputation. Fortunately, we can take challenges from the past year and look at ways that restaurant technology may be able to help reinforce safe food handling, storage and preparation.

Problem 1: Cognitive overload overwhelming employees
The pandemic has been disruptive for employees in myriad ways, and many of those disruptions contribute to problems with cognitive overload, such as overwhelming the amount of things your employees can remember at any given time. 

ELearning Industry tells us that three key factors contribute to cognitive overload: “The first is the abundance of decision-making opportunities. The second is distractions or training interruptions we must contend with. The last is the constant need to manage every moment of our day in order to maximize efficiency. All of this culminates in stress that prevents our minds from assimilating information effectively.”

The normal stress and business of working in a restaurant was exacerbated by COVID-19. Cranky customers, short-staffed shifts and new sanitation processes all contributed to cognitive overload.

Solution 1: Records, alerts and checklists
Food safety tools that are integrated into back-of-house solutions can go a long way toward providing the memory aids that help employees stay consistent on food safety. When work is hectic, it’s easy for things to slip by employees, no matter how well they know the correct procedures.

One of the ways to fight cognitive overload is by giving employees external reminders. Food safety tech can:

  • Provide checklists to remind employees what the correct procedures or steps are.
  • Alert employees if food has been out too long or kept at an unsafe temperature.
  • Keep records of food safety compliance.
  • Give notifications if walk-ins and other cold storage areas go above a certain temperature.

No matter how good your employees are, anything you can do to relieve some of the running task list in their heads will only benefit your brand.

Problem 2: Burnout and turnover leading to inconsistency
The pandemic has led to many employees leaving the industry, and those who stayed are facing burnout. This means foodservice is hiring employees who are new to brands, and potentially new to the industry, without the benefit of the usual wealth of institutional knowledge that augments training.

A food handlers permit is always a good start. However, your employees need consistent training and reinforcement to correctly apply safe food standards and brand procedures. So how do you work to help employees who may not be as consistent with their food safety behavior yet?

Solution 2: Better training tools and reinforcement
Things like alarms and alerts are part of the solution here too, but we also need to bring better training into the mix. Restaurants often rely on job shadowing and a paper packet to cover their training bases. However, if there has been higher than average turnover, that isn’t going to cut it.

Even something as simple as a series of short YouTube videos make it easier for your employees to get a refresher on correct food safety procedures when they need it. If you have HRM software, take advantage of any training tools they may have to store short, reinforceable snippets of information like short videos, infographics and other memory aids. This will help you better track usage and see which tools are most effective.

Problem 3: Supply chain disruptions compromising safety
The major supply chain disruptions of 2020 seem to have passed now, but there are still some ongoing issues with some products. Having to pay high, out-of-contract rates for things like gloves and cleaning supplies can kill your profitability and compromise food safety.

Solution 3: Stronger purchasing systems
Fortunately, restaurant operators can tap into tools that enable them to better track purchasing and enforce contracts with suppliers. With the right purchasing software, they can connect directly to suppliers, allowing them to order directly, review pricing and approve any out-of-contract charges before delivery. This goes a long way toward making sure operators have the necessary supplies for food safety, while ensuring they don’t have to pay sky high prices.

The impact of COVID-19 will have ripples across the restaurant industry for years to come, and it’s important that operators evaluate what changes they made for the pandemic that could still serve them well in the long run. Food safety may not have been top of mind when making other big changes like online ordering and delivery, but the changes we’re making as a result could be long-term improvements for brands.

About the author: Greg Staley is the CEO of SynergySuite, a back-of-house restaurant management platform. He focuses on facilitating better visibility for restaurant chains through the use of intelligent, integrated back-of-house technology.

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