Recipe for success: how to avoid a food safety disaster?

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As an operator, one of our biggest fears or cause for panic is when the local health inspector walks in. How did that happen? Most food service workers I speak to tell me that they are unrealistic in the requirements and that what they expect is impossible to achieve.

My first reaction to them is this: why?

I get all the standard answers – I have too much to do, I’m not trained, I don’t have the tools, they don’t understand how hard it is to run a restaurant, I’m understaffed, the boss won’t fix anything. Perhaps my favorite is “no matter how we score, people will come in because they love us.”

I listen and then remind them that one of a health inspector’s top priorities is to keep people from getting sick. I’m talking about an experience I had with a local restaurant where someone “had the sniffles” and was allowed to work because they were understaffed that day (the manager’s words when I spoke to him). I paid my check and left immediately. Not long after, I got the flu, which progressed to pneumonia. I was hospitalized for 5 days; my whole life came to a standstill.

This was an event in my life that could have been avoided if the manager had only taken his responsibility to the public more seriously.

There are some very basic points we can focus on during our shift to reduce the anxiety our team feels and therefore improve our health code standards. They are:


  1. Is food stored in the right containers and protected from contamination?
  2. Are hazardous materials clearly labeled (such as cleaning chemicals) and kept away from food products and kitchen utensils/small items?
  3. Are perishable cold foods kept in suitable refrigerators below 41 degrees Fahrenheit?
  4. Are equipment and food contact surfaces clean, smooth and in good condition?
  5. Do all refrigerators and freezers have calibrated and working thermometers?
  6. Are all products kept at least 15 cm from the floor?


  1. Are all hands clean, hats on and uniforms clean?
  2. Are all sinks stocked with soap and paper towels?
  3. Food handlers wash their hands up to their elbows with soap and warm water for a minimum of 20 seconds before starting or continuing their shift, touching a foreign object (from money to the telephone), going to the toilet, smoking or any other time during a service?
  4. Do employees refrain from eating, drinking or smoking in food production areas?
  5. Is all food handled in a safe, hygienic manner with disposable gloves or other protective barriers (grease paper, tongs, etc.)?


  1. Is there a red bucket of sanitizer in each station with a towel completely submerged in the sanitizer solution?
  2. Are equipment and small items of sanitary design and in good condition?
  3. Are test strips available?
  4. Is the three-compartment sink clean, correctly positioned and used only for washing kitchen utensils, small wares and equipment and never used for cleaning or food production?
  5. Are clean linens properly stored and away from used, soiled linens?
  6. Are the serving utensils stored in food items with the handles removed (if in use) or properly stored in the appropriate space in the kitchen?
  7. Are single-use utensils and containers used once and properly disposed of?
  8. Is there enough hot water available?
  9. Are the correct cleaning agents available and in use?

Of course, this is just a snapshot of what inspectors are looking for. We do know that though, don’t we? We also know deep down that these inspectors aren’t really trying to give us a hard time or give us a hard time. We worry about it because our business is one of instant gratification. Everyone who walks into our restaurant now wants something. We are being pulled in so many directions. That is why we focus on the guest experience. After all, they are the reason we are in business and ultimately stay in business. We should at least meet their expectations, but focus the training on exceeding their expectations.

The way to minimize the fear of the inspection is to instill confidence. When it comes to the Department of Health, the best defense is to educate as many people as possible in sanitation. According to the health code we are obliged to have one person per shift certified as a QFO (Qualified Food Operator). If we can surround that QFO with a team of well-trained people, health inspections become less daunting, less scary. You have a team all working towards a common goal, protecting people from harmful bacteria.


Mark Moeller is founder and president of The Recipe of Success, a national restaurant consultancy. For more information visit