The goal of a safe and healthy restaurant operation when it comes to the condition of surfaces is for them to be consistently clean and sanitary throughout the operational day. Modern approaches have resulted in the mediocre operations get better, the poor ones stay the same, and some of the good ones to get worse. Why? Because of a change in sanitation approaches and regulations. What exactly is it that many restaurants get wrong?
Clean vs Sanitary
The point that is often missed is an understanding of the difference between clean and sanitary, and how proper sanitizer use can help in that regard. Clean refers to being free from dirt, debris, soil, and residue. Sanitary refers to being relatively free from harmful pathogens. These two conditions are not always found to coincide; something can be clean but not sanitary and (though less likely) it can be sanitary without being clean.
The Old Days
In a typical restraurant years ago, if they placed an emphasis on cleanliness, they would wipe the tables regularly with a rag and some sort of general purpose cleaner. The cleaner was typically applied with a spray bottle, and the rag started dry and clean. As we’re talking about establishments that cared about cleanliness, the rag would be exchanged for a clean one when it became soiled.
Places that didn’t emphasize cleanliness would often use a rag by itself, sometimes wet with plain water or a weak soap solution. These rags would be used well past the point of becoming soiled, sometimes until they had turned from white to very dark in color and took on a certain odor. Not a very good situation.
Along Come the Quats
A great advance in restaurant sanitation came about when quaternary ammonium sanitizers or “Quats’ came on the scene. These sanitizers were effective at killing a wide range of microorganisms, and were very easy to deploy. Supplied in highly concentrated form, a bottle of the quat concentrate could last for weeks, and the mild nature of the prepared solution meant that it could be used without gloves and did not need rinsing. It was a match made in heaven for the foodservice industry. Soon quats became commonplace, and the square red sanitizer bucket became a fixture at restaurants everywhere. A great advance for the most part, a wonderful tool, but with some unintended consequences as well.
The Issues in Practice
The widespread use of quat sanitizer has created a few issues though, and I’ve seen far too many restaurants subject to these issues. Here are some of the most prominent ones.
Many restaurants skip the cleaning step and use a rag saturated with sanitizer for all table and surface wiping. There are two main issues with this: 1. The sanitizer isn’t that effective as a cleaner, and stubborn soils and greasy residue isn’t effectively cleaned. and 2. Using a single-step approach conveys lots of debris and contamination into the sanitizer bucket, as that’s where the rags in use must be stored (there is an interesting backstory to that particular regulation that will need be covered another time). The conveying of debris to the bucket is particularly troublesome, as the sanitizer loses effectiveness rapidly when burdened with contaminants.
What to Do
The food code itself is partially responsible for these practices, but there is room to do things better within its boundaries. Here are some suggestions:
- Consider cleaning and sanitizing as two separate activities. Use a clean rag and a spray bottle of general purpose cleaner to clean and follow that up with sanitizer on a separate rag from the sanitizer bucket. This may seem like overkill for some restaurant concepts, but the amount of soil that accumulates from the food served can be a guide in development of cleaning protocol. In some cases, the cleaning round as described can be done less often, with the sanitizing step performed every time a table turns.
- Be clear about the need to change to a new sanitizer rag when they become soiled. Keep a close eye on this, and make it a point to keep dirty rags out of the solution. Some restaurants that don’t want to use laundry services have adopted disposable rags, or pre-moistened pop-up sanitizer wipes which can be a good option as well, though not without a few drawbacks of their own.
- Check the concentration of your sanitizer regularly (test strips should be readily available in the location), record the results, and change the sanitizer regularly. Also, make sure that the staff understands that cloudy or discolored sanitizer must be changed immediately, regardless of when it is due to be changed.
Do these things, and your restaurants can be both clean and sanitary.
p.s. Make sure that your staff all knows two non-negotiables in this area: No nasty rags! No cloudy sanitizer buckets! And while you’re at it, get your sanitizer buckets up off the floor and onto a shelf where they will stay much cleaner.