Mindful of the risks that contaminated hands—no matter who owns them—pose to health, some foodservice operators are extending their hand-hygiene efforts to customers, not just employees. They’re offering patrons some of the same measures workers have used for some time in the back-of-the-house, such as hand-sanitizing wipes and gels and automatic hand-washing machines.
For the past several years, roughly half of Chick-fil-A Inc.’s approximately 1,400 stores have offered free hand-sanitizing wipes to customers, particularly stores that have playground equipment. Customers "love the idea," said Mark Baldwin, spokesman for the Atlanta-based quick-service chain, "especially moms with children who have been through the playground." With safety in mind, many stores also offer single-use place mats that stick to restaurant tabletops to provide a clean surface for toddlers who eat with their fingers.
For employees of Denny’s Inc., the 1,500-unit, Spartanburg, S.C.-based family-dining chain, using hand sanitizer, as well as double-washing hands and using a nail brush, are essential practices. However, a Denny’s franchisee in California is going a step further—into the dining room—by testing a dispenser of hand sanitizer located there for customer use.
"If the feedback from guests is very positive, we may look to expand that," said Thomas "Mike" Starnes, Denny’s vice president of brand protection, quality and regulatory compliance.
"If I was looking at eliminating a lot of food-poisoning situations, it would be from a hand-washing and sanitation standpoint," said food safety consultant Gary Ades, Ph.D., president of G&L Consulting Group in Bentonville, Ark.
Those measures are essential for protecting against the easily communicable norovirus, the culprit in many gastroenteritis outbreaks, Ades noted.
Automated hand-washing machines in the dining rooms of Rudy’s Country Store & Bar-B-Q and Mighty Fine Burgers, Fries and Shakes have become customer attractions, reported officials of K&N Management, an Austin, Texas-based company with four franchised Rudy’s and one Mighty Fine, its own creation.
Customers are welcome to insert their hands into the twin ports of the Meritech hand-washing machine located in each dining room. That action automatically triggers a 15-second high-pressure, warm-water wash, sanitize and rinse cycle. There’s another hand washer in the kitchen for food preparation workers as well.
"It’s fun and easy and our employees enjoy using it," area director Marlis Oliver said.
"We put the hand washers in the dining room originally because we thought this would be a good way to promote cleanliness and let our guests see what our employees do," co-owner Ken Schiller said. "But we’ve had people say they brought friends here with that being the driving reason—to use the hand washer."
Stickers saying "I have clean hands" are placed near the hand washer for customers to take.
"In our five locations, we’ll probably go through about 500,000 of those clean-hands stickers in 2008," Oliver said.
At the nine-unit Jose Peppers/Cactus Grill casual-dining chain based in Overland Park, Kan., employees regularly use hand-washing machines behind the scenes. But owner Ed Gieselman has gone public with hand sanitizer. His servers place a bottle on each table as customers are seated.
"Most customers use it," Gieselman said. "It has been been received very well."
"Hand-sanitizing products are great, but the one thing we have to remember is that you cannot sanitize something that is not clean, "Ades said. "You actually have to wash your hands before you can sanitize them."