It's Saturday night and you're in the middle of the dinner rush. Your kitchen is slammed, and the large group that's been lingering in section three just asked for another round of drinks while a line of walk-ins wait outside. Suddenly, a man with a utility belt and clipboard walks in and your heart sinks — it's time for a restaurant health inspection.
Many restaurant operators shake their fist at restaurant health inspections, which are unannounced and tend to happen during your busiest shifts. But by taking steps to prepare your restaurant and staff — and working that system into your daily operations — you'll be ready no matter when the next inspector shows up.
Why restaurant health inspections are important
Health inspections help restaurants maintain safe food handling and preparation practices to keep customers safe and protect the public from foodborne illnesses. Inspectors typically visit restaurants once or twice per year — but can conduct additional inspections if they receive customer complaints.
The cost of violating restaurant health codes is steep — from hefty fines to lost revenue from temporary forced closures to bring your operation up to code. Plus, your restaurant's reputation is at stake. No one wants the dreaded "C" grade in their restaurant window — a scarlet letter displayed to all passersby. Health code violations and inspection failures are also sometimes reported in the local press, spreading the bad news to the broader community.
But instead of getting frustrated, restaurant operators should think of restaurant health inspections as a way to set up their business for long-term success. Take the opportunity to build relationships with your local health department, rather than viewing them as an antagonist. Knowledgeable inspectors can provide helpful advice as you think about the best way to operate your business while accommodating today's constantly evolving restrictions.
COVID-19's impact on restaurant health inspections
Over the last year, restaurant health inspections have expanded to include not just the usual food safety, handling and prep, but compliance with COVID-19 restrictions. In San Francisco, health departments are receiving increased complaints from customers reporting social distancing violations or lack of proper face coverings. In this way, passing restaurant health inspections and following health codes have become even more important for restaurant operators.
Depending on your local regulations, these COVID-19 safety guidelines may include masks for staff or potentially customers, limited indoor or outdoor capacity, tables six feet apart, proper ventilation, and frequent sanitizing of tables, menus, pens for credit card signatures, and other shared objects. And if you're taking your staff's temperature before they enter your restaurant, be sure to also check the health inspector's temperature as part of your inspection protocol.
Key focus areas for restaurant health inspections
Aside from COVID-19 compliance, restaurant health inspections focus on a few priorities. Below are some general categories, but be sure to check your local regulations as they vary by city and state. To prepare your restaurant for an inspection, search on your state, county, or city's official website (it will end in ".gov") to study the inspection criteria and get resources.
Health inspectors want to make sure your food is stored at safe temperatures and in ways that avoid the risk of cross-contamination. For example, food must be stored at least six inches off the ground in a clean, dry location. Your kitchen, freezers, and other storage areas must be kept clean. Keep perishable goods in refrigerators or freezers, which should be maintained at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, and 0 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. To avoid dripping and cross-contamination, don't store raw meat above ready-to-eat ingredients like produce, and be sure to wrap or use containers when storing all ingredients. Finally, label your food and containers with "use by" dates and make sure to get rid of expired items.
Food preparation and cooking
Kitchen staff should avoid cross-contamination by using separate cutting boards, utensils, and surfaces for prepping raw meats and ready-to-eat foods. You can try color-coordinating your tools to help your staff easily remember. When cooking meat or fish, make sure it gets to its safe internal temperature before serving to customers. Keep records of food temperature checks for storage, prep, and cooking to share with the inspector.
Make sure your staff follows proper handwashing, using warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds. If an employee feels sick, they should be sent home immediately. Kitchen staff should replace single-use gloves after completing each food-handling task.
To keep pesky pests away, be sure to take the garbage out regularly, and use trash cans with sealable lids. Block all entry points to your kitchen and restaurant by closing open doors and sealing any holes in your walls or windows. Don't leave food, crumbs or spills out for rodents or insects to get to — instead, wipe floors and surfaces frequently. If you see telltale signs of pests, such as droppings or chewed-up materials, set up non-poisonous traps that won't contaminate the food.
Preparing your restaurant for a health inspection
You can protect your customers, your business, and your community by taking the following steps to prepare your restaurant for — and pass — your next restaurant health inspection.
Review your past inspection reports
If you've gone through health inspections at your restaurant before, the best way to start preparing for your next one is to review your most recent inspection report. Identify past violations or areas for improvement and figure out how each one happened in the first place — and what steps you can take now ensure it doesn't happen again. Post your most recent report in the kitchen or staff break room as a reminder to your employees to remember previous violations or keep up the good work.
Stay up-to-date on the latest health regulations
While inspectors can answer questions, it's your responsibility as the restaurant operator to understand local health codes. Call your local health department or check their website for the latest guidelines, especially as restrictions change with COVID-19. Consider joining your state's restaurant association, which may be able to provide health inspection resources and the latest forms used by inspectors, or contact the National Restaurant Association. You can also skim through the FDA's Food Code, a comprehensive set of guidelines updated every four years to help states develop their local health inspection regulations.
Talk to other restaurants in your neighborhood to learn what happened at their most recent health inspections. Find out what violations they received to try to predict which areas inspectors will review most closely. After your inspection, let nearby restaurants know so they can prepare for their own inspection — if you give your peers a heads up, they'll likely do the same for you next time.
Train and prepare your staff for restaurant health inspections
Once you're up-to-date on the latest foodservice industry health requirements, it's time to make sure your staff has the same deep knowledge. Getting your staff to prepare for restaurant health inspections is an ongoing process — not simply a one-time training when they're hired. All of your employees — from cooks to dishwashers to servers to bartenders — must be aware of the health codes, know how to avoid violations, and learn what to expect during health inspections.
Place signage around the kitchen and breakroom with simple instructions and reminders about food safety and hygiene. Hold regular meetings and training sessions to ensure your team keeps your restaurant up to code and ready for an inspection at any time. Make it clear that you expect your staff to maintain the level of safety and cleanliness required for an inspection, year-round.
If you see something, say something — for example, if you or another manager spots a team member violating a health code, remind them of the correct technique before bad habits form. Be sure to lead by example and follow the health codes yourself — don't take sanitation shortcuts that will create bad practices throughout your team.
Periodically ask your employees about the latest food safety techniques and sanitation questions that they're responsible for executing, so that they're ready to answer questions from the inspector. For example, quiz them on the internal temperatures for fully cooked beef, poultry and fish. Help them understand that these practices will not only keep your customers safe, but are crucial for the restaurant's future and their own job security. For more on building a training plan for employees, check out our guide, Building a Five-Star Team.
Conduct practice inspections
Health inspections can happen any time — and often during your busiest time. Surprise your staff with unannounced "self-inspections," where you play the role of inspector. Using your knowledge of local health codes and your experience with past inspections, conduct a full-fledged inspection on your own restaurant. Watch your staff in action and ask questions about their storage, prep, and cooking techniques; check on frequency of handwashing, bathroom cleanings, and surface wipes; and dive deep into your walk-in to check for expired items or cross-contamination. After the self-inspection is over, hold a meeting with your team to discuss any problem areas and how to correct them before the real inspection.
Set up a cleaning and maintenance schedule
To make sure nothing falls through the cracks, create a schedule for daily, weekly, and monthly cleaning tasks for both front-of-house and back-of-house teams. Developing a checklist and assigning tasks to certain employees (or creating a rotating schedule) will help them know what they need to do at the end each night — e.g., refilling soap dispensers — and how to plan for bigger cleanups — e.g., going through the freezer. Establishing a consistent cleaning schedule will make it easier for staff to plan and make these tasks part of their regular routine.
Avoid these restaurant health inspection mistakes
While the list of potential restaurant health inspection violations is long, here are a few of the most common ones. These mistakes can be avoided with proper training, careful planning, and clear communication to your staff:
Uncovered food containers or other improper storage for hot or cold food
Missing labels for expiration dates
Storing cleaning products near food storage areas
Lack of temperature check log
Staff member is sick
Ensuring a smooth restaurant health inspection
While most restaurateurs don't open a restaurant dreaming of health inspections, the reality is, they are a crucial part of the job. Consistently keeping your restaurant, staff, and customers safe and free of food-borne illness is a top priority. By running your restaurant as if the health inspector is visiting every day, you'll feel prepared for a smooth inspection and will pass with flying colors.