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Denny’s Starnes: Strict food safety requires the right tools

Denny’s Starnes: Strict food safety requires the right tools

Cooking and refrigeration equipment play important roles in the food safety effort at Denny’s Corp, says Thomas M. “Mike” Starnes, vice president of food safety, quality assurance and brand standards for the Spartanburg, S.C.-based chain of nearly 1,600 family restaurants. Starnes joined Denny’s in 1981 after working as an educator and football coach. In 1989, he moved from a multiunit supervisory position into research and development, where he implemented then parent company Advantica Restaurant Group’s first Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, or HACCP, food safety program. Today Starnes oversees a 43-person team and is responsible for maintaining Denny’s brand standards and HACCP manual, which outlines all of the company’s food handling, preparation, cleanliness, sanitation, regulatory and service procedures.

What role does equipment play in Denny’s food safety program?

Equipment is extremely important. To show how important it is, we invited 28 vendors to our offices to talk about the capabilities of their equipment. As an older brand, we look at ways to remodel Denny’s [kitchens] in such a way that we will remain a customer choice while maximizing food safety and food quality.

What type of equipment has Denny’s adopted for better food safety?

We have gone to quick-recovery grills that maintain consistent cooking temperatures. Temperature recovery is extremely important if you use flat grills for cooking. A grill should quickly return to proper temperature after you cover it with a number of burgers or pancakes. The same goes if you cook frozen food on it. Some people just use timers to tell when food is properly cooked, but we don’t. They may assume that two and a half minutes on each side is sufficient. But it may not be cooked properly if temperature recovery is slow.

At Denny’s, we use a thermocouple to check exact temperatures, because time and temperature are both very important.

Another thing that we have found is that a clamshell grill with both an upper and lower heating element can cook a frozen hamburger patty almost as fast as a raw one. You can retrofit an older grill with a clamshell, but we think it’s better to get a new one.

For cold-food storage, we’re using refrigeration equipment that keeps food colder. The previous food code required potentially hazardous foods to be held at 45 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, but the current standard is 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.

What innovative equipment might be useful for food safety?

One of the things that we are looking at is an egg-dispensing system that holds liquid eggs at the right refrigerated temperature and protects them from cross-contamination. It dispenses a consistent amount of egg for each order and is self-cleaning as well.

In addition, there are accelerated cooking platforms, like the microwave-enabled convection oven that cooks a potato in four minutes or a dozen biscuits very rapidly. I think we’ll look into that.

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