Developing in-house safety champions and designing facilities supporting social distancing without eliminating the human contact vital to many guests are among the less obvious coronavirus pandemic related challenges faced by restaurateurs, two large chain executives recently noted.
The building of knowledge networks greater than the sum of their parts is also key to weathering COVID-19, a third exec indicated during the webinar, “Food and Dining: The Future State.” That Sept. 30 session was the finale to the Restaurants Rise Food Safety four-part series of streaming educational programs produced by Ecolab and Nation’s Restaurant News.
The weekly sessions in September coincided with National Food Safety Month and included such other themes as “Ensuring Customer and Employee Confidence During COVID-19,” “Health Inspections: What You Need to Know Now and Then,” and “Demystifying Sanitation in Foodservice: New Procedures and Approaches.” Replays can be viewed here.
The closing webinar featured Doug Davis, Marriott International senior director of global food safety; Dan Goldberg, BJ’s Restaurants Inc. vice president of quality assurance; and Bessie Politis, Starbucks Corp. senior manager of retail food safety and regulatory. It was moderated by Lisa Robinson, vice president of global food safety and public health for Ecolab.
Robinson recapped research by Datassential that found that 76% of consumer respondents agreed that “a restaurant’s cleanliness and food safety procedures will always matter more to me now than it did before.” A full 80%, she continued, concurred that “I will be more careful to check if places are strictly enforcing safety precautions before deciding where to eat.”
Davis said Marriott, which operates or has franchisees operating more than 10,000 fast-casual to fine-dining restaurants in its branded hotels worldwide, has been listening and learning from its foodservice operators and then challenging them to foster change from the center. However, he added, “it is up to these restaurants to deliberate, be thoughtful and comprehensive in addressing the sensitivities of operating in a COVID-19 world and providing guests with confidence and comfort they need to eat, drink and meet with us.”
Davis said Marriott has a Cleanliness Council to help devise pandemic and future strategies that includes himself, Ruth Petran, Ecolab senior corporate scientist for food safety and public health, an infectious disease physician and a microbial lab representative from academia. That group, in conjunction with input from regulatory bodies, public health organizations and its field personnel, helped lay the foundation for 10 pandemic-era global food & beverage standards, including one around the creation of “cleanliness champions.”
“Marriott has identified one thing we have to do, and that is we have to a stakeholder in hotels and restaurants in addition to the person in charge. We think that is paramount in pulling through our protocols and validating and really creating ownership,” Davis said of the ‘champions’ initiative in which Ecolab, as “a partner,” has supplied or helped develop training videos, quizzes, audits and other supporting materials or procedures. “Each one [champion] is certified and they have ongoing connection with us. So far, we have 9,300 of those folks who have been trained globally and we’re thankful for them.”
Starbuck’s Politis touched on how that worldwide brand is re-evaluating efficiency for a post-pandemic world and mentioned its new “mobile order and pay, pick-up only store” design. Such facilities, she said, will be “strategically built in communities where the customer base is more of a commuter customer, and they simply want to be able to order through their phone, come into the store, pick up and not basically interact with anyone and then take their items and go back to work or back to their homes.”
Taking into account the future “physical distancing issues” of both guests and staff means Starbucks is weighing “reducing the seating capacity for our stores where they are more community based and we do want that store to be the ‘third place’” after work and home, Politis noted. “Our community table, where single customers can go and just sit individually and do their work and consume their beverage, are probably going to go away and then more single-type tables will be set up.”
“Some of our stores have become a second home for many of our customers. This is only time they actually interact with individuals,” Politis said of a dynamic in the so-called ‘third place’ locations. “When we are putting in all of these precautionary measures now moving forward with distancing and reduced seating – those are the customers that we’re concerned that we may lose that person-to-person connection [with].”
The rise of automation and artificial intelligence and how they are implemented in Starbucks stores may be part of the solution to such problems, she suggested, as they will “certainly help make space for our partners – we call our employees ‘partners’ – to have that human connection.”
BJ’s Goldberg also talked about technology, observing, “Contactless payment is now bigger than it has ever been and we see it as getting bigger in the future, as well as contactless delivery.”
He said his chain had added QR codes that permit guests who are uncomfortable handling menus handled by others to snap a smartphone picture of a symbol at the table to load the menu on their personal device. What’s more, Goldberg said his brand is also exploring the use of “wearable” technology for contact tracing that would log whenever two employees come within a certain distance of each other.
On the recently hot topic of air quality and circulation in enclosed spaces and their implications for the spread of COVID-19 or other harmful viruses, Goldberg referenced earlier start-and-stop messaging about “aerosolization” of COVID-19 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and added, “but we do know that there is stuff we can do in the future to help mitigate risk.”
“We’re looking at it – and I know other concepts are looking at it, as well – different types of filters that can be used to filter out any type of pathogens that might be in the air, whether it is a HEPA filter or looking to something that may be a little more technologically advanced – something like photohydroionization.” He added that while there is likely a future for air quality systems that, for example, kill pathogens that are airborne by producing hydro peroxides and peroxide like ions that would neutralize those pathogens, they “will never take the place of actual disinfection, itself.”