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Cooking: Out of the Mouths of Babes: Tips for Picking a Safe Restaurant

Published by: on Friday July 20th, 2012

Food

One evening, I was sitting in a restaurant with my kids, and my youngest tugged on my shirt and said “Dad!  Watch!”  Like many of us, I was engaged in conversation on my phone, and I paused long enough to see why my 10 year old was so excited. He nodded towards our server and quietly whispered, “Watch her!”  What quickly unfolded was pure amazement.  My son had engaged in “people watching” the restaurant staff, and he had noticed some of the most obvious restaurant violations.  With an adult's wisdom and understanding of the situation, my ten year old quickly began to explain what the server was doing wrong.  Then, he followed up with “Should we leave, Dad?”

So, I quickly watched the situation for several minutes before realizing that the problem stemmed mostly from one server.  Now, being a restaurant owner, I really want to know when staff is doing wrong.  I love hearing the praises from our guests, but I really encourage them to tell a manager when they have a problem.  I have come to realize that no matter how hard you try (through either training, discipline, or coercing), employees will make mistakes, and a few will do some of the darndest things.  So, I took my own advice, and I looked for a manager to report the problem. 

After returning home, I got to thinking about the whole episode.  I realized my son picked up on her mistakes because he’s “helped out” in our restaurant.  I still chuckle at the time he reminded a milkshake splattered server in a teasing voice “Don’t forget to wash your hands.”  You should have seen the embarrassment that twenty something’s face.

But, back to my story…what if I wasn’t a restaurant owner and ServSafe® certified?  How would I have known there was a problem in this restaurant?  How could I keep my family safe? So, I began a list of tips that I’ll share with you:

Look for the food safety score to be within 15 feet of the door.  Simple, right?  Well, try looking for it the next time you go into a restaurant.  Make a game of it with your kids.  You will be amazed at where you find it.  We’ve found it close to the cash register, near the restrooms, backward facing so you see it on your way out, and not even posted.  While most of these aren’t a dead giveaway that something’s wrong, not posting it could be a sign that they don't want you to know their score.  So, use this as a starting point and not the end of your visit.

Read the food safety score.  Duh!  Obvious, right?  Wrong!  What most people do not realize is that the previous scores are actually included in small print with the current score.   The current health score gives you a positive or negative snapshot of a particular date in time. However, consistently low scores (i.e. repeatedly in the 70s/C or below) across several dates can indicate a bigger problem.   As I posted in my previous blog, I have heard the phrase “I don't eat at places with less than an A rating" uttered more than a few times. Unfortunately, many great restaurants have B ratings for minor infractions (e.g. dripping sink) that have little to do with food handling.

Check the bathroom to see if it’s grimy with dirt.   “Support bacteria. They're the only culture some people have.” ~ Larry the Cable Guy.  Sounds like a pretty straight forward tip, right?  Well, there’s actually more to this tip than meets the eye.  In general terms, the kitchen is usually one of the dirtiest places in a restaurant due cooking and food preparation.  However, if the bathroom looks like Cletus’ mother’s second cousin has been washing the grease from their paws in there for 10 years; you can bet that they aren’t doing a thorough job of cleaning of their kitchen.

Watch for staff washing their hands.  The old cliché “a little soap and water never hurt anyone” rings true for restaurants.  Although hand washing is not easily noticeable in some eateries, this is a great tip to follow.  Frequent hand washing reduces food borne illness, and is a good sign that management is actively working to reduce food-borne illnesses.

Watch how they prepare that “Sweet Tea.”  Many an old southerner loves their sweet tea and saltines with “redneck caviar.”  But, it doesn’t mean your server should act like they are working at Aunt Bea’s house when it comes to your lemon.  Employees should not touch ready to eat foods with bare hands, and bare-hand contact with garnishes should be minimized. 

Look for employee drinks in food preparation areas.  "Picture it...Sicily, 1918" ~R.I.P. Estelle Getty.  You know, Sophia from Golden Girls could always get her point across in the most down to earth, spunky way.  In similar fashion, imagine an employee making your sandwich and they reach over to take a sip of their drink.  Or, worse, they spill it while preparing your food.   Here’s the bottom line.  Many restaurants use designated areas for employee drinks because it eliminates health code infractions.  The drink should have a lid on it.  If you see an employee drink sitting on a surface where they are cooking or preparing food, be skeptical.  It creates a potential pathway for food-borne illness, or worse, to transfer illnesses from an employee to the consumer. 

Look at the neatness of server fingernails.  I saved my humdinger for last because I still shutter every time I remember this story.  Not long after we opened the diner, I went to lunch with some business colleagues, and we were discussing this very topic.  They were asking me how I knew if a restaurant was safe, and I was imparting some of the tips I had learned.  About that time, our waitress appeared with our food, and she visibly had enough dirt and grime under her nails to start her own auto garage.  Needless to say, we never went back.  So, I always watch the nails.  I will say that management typically keeps a watchful eye on employee fingernails to prevent them from becoming unsightly and creating a food-borne illness pathway.  However, there is always one employee that spoils it for everyone.  So, if you see several staff with grimy and unkempt nails, there may be an underlying hygiene problem. 

(DISCLAIMER:   Each state has different food safety codes.  Please ask your local health authority if you have any questions about your local code)