Restaurants which were humming with activity and serving a full house on Valentine’s Day last year are now, with strict observance of social distancing and other SOPS due to the pandemic, having only about 25% of the occupancy. Under these circumstances, it is imperative for F&B outlets to be vigilant about food safety. Ashok Malkani tries to find out the steps being taken by the industry not only to maintain hygiene in the kitchens but also to keep the guests informed about these measures to gain their confidence. And, with increasing costs, due to observance of high level of hygiene as well as having low number of diners due to maintenance, how do these F&B outlets manage to balance the revenue?
The culture of eating out, which had been steadily evolving over the last decade and a half, has been badly affected by the pandemic. Pre-pandemic food services in India which, according to the National Restaurant Association of India, was estimated at Rs 4,23,865 crore, has been badly hit. Though, with the easing off of the lockdown the restaurateurs have been slowly trying to restore faith in their guests about the necessary steps being taken to ensure safety of the diners by following all the SOPs set in place by the health authorities, the guests are cautious about the hygiene being followed in these outlets.
With new versions of virus being discovered, the panic among the people has not decreased, resulting in very little favourable effect on the F&B outlets. These establishments are making all efforts to convince the customers about their safety. With strict observance of social distancing, there is less contact-dining experience for diners. On the technical front the restaurateurs have started usage of QR, non-human interference except for service of food at the table. Besides, there has been a high level of hygiene for staff as well as adherence of strict cleanliness and sanitization in the kitchens.
People believe that corona virus can be spread through food and so they want to be assured about how the raw food is cleaned and cooked and served at the table.
It may be mentioned that while research into the COVID-19 virus is ongoing, it has so far been found that the virus is transmitted through direct contact with respiratory droplets of an infected person (through coughing and sneezing), and touching surfaces contaminated with the virus. At present there is no evidence of people catching the COVID-19 virus from food
Mustakeen Sheikh, CEO, Realta Ventures and spokesperson of London Bubble Co. declares, “The pandemic has caused ripples across several industries and has severely impacted the sheen of the F&B sector. Hygiene and sanitization have emerged as non-negotiable. Even though there is no evidence of transmission via food, the F&B industry has had to ensure that people are aware of the precautions taken to gain customer confidence.
“While large-format brick and mortar stores were important touch points for brands to engage with the audience, the contagion has fuelled the need for hybrid, contactless solutions laying equal emphasis on the online and offline ecosystem. In both formats, maintaining hygiene from a product standpoint remains our key focus so that food safety is not compromised. It’s the prevention of contamination that is of highest importance across all our London Bubble Co. outlets.”
Kamlesh Salve, Executive Chef, The Mirador Mumbai, asserts, “Covid 19 is not a food or water borne disease. It is transferred from human to human and contact surfaces.”
He adds that the scare of the virus has affected not only the F&B segment but the entire hospitality industry. “The guest who walks into a hotel or a restaurant is concerned about his safety,” he says.
Speaking about food safety he disclosed, “The first recipe of the safe food is hand wash. Before starting any work in the kitchen or coming into the kitchen you should wash your hands for 30 seconds. To maintain kitchen hygiene we wash and sanitise out worktops, knives and utensils. The dish clothes are also washed. Most of the restaurateurs use separate chopping boards for veg and non-veg food. Another essential step for food safety is keeping raw meat separate from the cooked and semi cooked meat. One should store raw meat on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. The fridge temperature should be below 5 degree C.”
With people being extra conscious about maintaining food hygiene, the F&B outlets are taking extra steps to assure guests that they maintain the kitchen surroundings and food items hygienically cleaned. In the current corona virus pandemic washing of fruits and vegetables has gained more prominence. There are several people making use of vegetable washes (which are being highly advertised), disinfecting liquids and detergents for cleaning veggies and fruits.
While many food scientists advise against the use of chemical based products due to the potential risk of residues and chemical buildup, some suggest that a diluted mild detergent solution can be used with proper rinsing of fruits and vegetables with clean water, especially when chances of viral contamination are higher.
Kamlesh avers, “Personally I do not use any solutions available in market which claim that cleaning vegetables with solutions can kill virus. I believe the best way to wash and sanitize your vegetables is with chlorine water. You can use a solution made of 4ml of chlorine in 10 ltrs of water or 50 ppm (parts per million).”
He is of the view that proper storage of vegetables and meats is essential for an F&B outlet. He says,”The veggies have to be sanitized immediately on arrival before storing them for future use. In case of packaged material we, at The Mirador Mumbai, quarantine the boxes for 24 hours.”
Mustakeen states that washing of vegetables and meat does not arise at his outlets since majority of the offerings on the menus in their outlets comprise of baked products. He adds, “We rather give importance to proper cooking to make sure there is no concentration of any kind of pathogens in food. Additionally, the virus has proven to be susceptible to food cooked at a recommended temperature so we use a food thermometer to minimize the slightest chances of contamination of our menu offerings.
“Our staff also frequently wipes down counters, sanitize cookware and utensils and other high- contact surfaces. We use an industry approved alcohol disinfectant and disposable wash cloths to wipe down surfaces to avoid contamination. We also ensure that containers and packages are sanitized.”
Due to extra precautionary measures to ensure customer safety and complying with the mandatory social distancing, resulting in curtailment of customers, it becomes difficult for the restaurateurs to make ends meet. Added to this is the rising cost of goods raising the cost of operations of the establishment.
So how are the F&B outlets preparing to manage the rising costs, without affecting the inflow of the customers?
Mustakeen concedes that it is difficult for the outlets to make ends meet. He says, “The decline in footfalls has compelled businesses to restructure and realign operations to adjust to the new normal. The F&B industry has had to swiftly adapt to the economic climate and maintain smooth business continuity. A portion of the rebuilding efforts is prioritizing preemptive investments in food hygiene and sanitization. We’ve invested in purchasing protective equipment and sanitization of units to create a safe dining experience for our customers. To manage these challenges and regain profitability, we are adding cost to our COG and absorbing the same. The industry has adopted to new ways to sustain operations by embracing digital transformation. The low cost-high impact investment is leading the F&B industry on its path of recovery.”
Kamlesh states, “Governments around the world consider the food industry as strategic sector during this crisis. Since the F&B industry is helping communities around the globe by providing them essential food, we are socially responsible for keeping our activities going.”
He adds “In some hotels and restaurants the guest are charged extra due to the extra expenditure being incurred to maintain high standards of hygiene. On the other hand some establishments take the onus of bearing the extra costs and do not charge any additional cost.”
In other word, there are additional costs but it is up to the establishments to charge extra or to reduce their percentage of profit.
Cleanliness and hygiene does not merely mean cleaning the vegetables and meat but also ensuring that the chefs follow strict adherence to food safety. Some of these methods are:
Mustakeen states, “During these unprecedented times, we have invested heavily in training and development of our staff to enable them to smoothly manage end-to-end operations - right from receiving an order to dispatch. We’ve also outlined a 14-point memorandum that states all safety protocols, which works as an assessment list to monitor sanitization, providing reassurance to all stakeholders.
“Personal hygiene is imperative among people who handle food and packaging at the backend. We’ve realigned the flow in terms of managing raw materials and limiting the number of handling staff in compliance with safety guidelines. In addition to this, our outlets undergo timely audits to ensure food safety practices are resolutely followed.”
Kamlesh stressed, “Various areas of Food Establishment (such as food preparation, production area, stores, packaging area, service area, waste disposal area, etc.), transport vehicle should be cleaned with soap and water, followed by disinfection (using freshly prepared 1 percent Sodium hypochlorite solution against coronavirus). The same chemical mixture has to be used to sanitize the walk-in and deep fridge including SS racks, the ceiling, walls, flexible rubber, cooling fan, ventilators, curtains. At The Mirador, we also make it a practice to sanitize the food crates with 100 ppm of chlorine for 10 minutes. The same cleaning and sanitizing process should be followed for all vertical and table top refrigerators.
The other practices that should be adhered to are:
Several restaurants have not only adopted hygiene in the eating out places but have also taken steps to protect their home delivery boys from exposure to corona virus. Many restaurants have begun doing contactless drop offs where the customer pays in advance and the delivery person leaves the package of food outside the door so that two parties don’t interact.
But the restaurants, which normally rely on dine-in guests for business, have to convince the guests about the safety measures adopted by the restaurants. So how do the restaurateurs enlighten the customers about the precautionary steps being taken for their safety?
Kamlesh states that some of the measures taken by the restaurant can be gauged by the customers due to their easy visibility. He reveals, “At our F&B outlets, we adopt the following methods for guests’ safety:
“There are several other measures which are adopted but are not visible. They are:
“These are only a few of the safety measures adopted at our hotel and we keep our diners duly posted about these precautions taken by us.”
Mustakeen declares, “The pandemic has laid undisputed importance on safety and hygiene across all formats – delivery as well as dine-in. Fortunately, we have always been compliant to the guidelines prescribed by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India and have held hygiene practices in high regards. However, certain new implementations like temperature checks and regular sanitization were communicated through our social media platforms. We wanted to take into account the minutest of concerns of our consumers and even reached out to them to understand their apprehensions and worked at etching it in our SOPs for our kitchen staff, servers and valet riders. The most important step in retaining the confidence of the customer was to keep them informed at all levels - cooking, packaging and delivery and we rightfully managed to do so through our various owned assets.”
Guidance from the World Health Organization says, "Current evidence on other coronavirus strains shows that while corona viruses appear to be stable at low and freezing temperatures for a certain period, food hygiene and good food safety practices can prevent their transmission through food."
That said, there is little doubt that food hygiene and good food safety practices are essential to attract not only dine-in crowd in the F&B outlets but also encourage people to order at home. Thus, food service operators must be rigorous in following safety, cleaning, and sanitation protocols.
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