Guide to safely cleaning and disinfecting a restaurant during the COVID pandemic

Empty restaurant

Keeping restaurants clean has always been tough. And the challenge has only grown during COVID-19. Properly sanitizing food contact surfaces and restaurant facilities has never been more important. Everyone is feeling the pressure. When disinfecting a restaurant, it’s essential to get the steps right.

Unfortunately, what’s ‘right’ can sometimes be hard to figure out. Restaurant operators have been asking big questions, including:

  • How do I sanitize a restaurant prep kitchen?
  • What surfaces should sanitizers be used on?
  • How often should food contact surfaces be sanitized?
  • How can I make sanitization go faster?

This guide will help professionals make well-informed cleaning and sanitizing decisions amidst pandemic, from choosing chemicals and equipment to effectively sanitizing different surfaces.

What to sanitize (and how often)

The cleaning and sanitizing process has different steps depending on what you’re doing. Chemicals, techniques and frequency are all variable. To make things easier when disinfecting, consider the front of house and back of house areas separately, as they come with very different potential risks.

Front of house

The increased movement of people through front-of-house areas carries elevated risks of transmission. Of course, the first step for operating safely is ensuring appropriate PPE use by all staff, especially cloth face coverings. Taking increased care with front-of-house surfaces is important as well.

For materials used by customers, the FDA advises restaurants to increase the frequency of cleaning and sanitizing. They also recommend eliminating materials where possible to reduce the number of potential points of contamination. Online menus are an excellent example.

Materials that cannot be removed completely should be sanitized between each use. This may include:

  • Washing fabric items such as tablecloths, cloth napkins and throw rugs in soapy hot water or a washing machine.
  • Sanitizing condiment containers and reusable menus. Remove food items, such as salt and pepper, from their containers prior to sanitization to prevent chemical contamination.
  • Using gloves when collecting used dishware and silverware, then washing wares in soapy hot water or a dishwasher. Employees should also use soap and warm water to wash their hands after removing gloves.

High-touch surfaces require particular attention. To understand your facility’s high-touch hot spots, consider where customers are required or very likely to use their hands. Common hot spots include doorknobs, kiosks and purchase counters, drink dispensers, tables and chairs. Clean and sanitize these surfaces with greater frequency.

Cleaning wooden tables and chairs requires special consideration. Dining tables are considered food-contact surfaces, meaning all disinfectant chemicals must be thoroughly washed away before serving on them. However, wood is porous. This makes disinfecting chemicals difficult to rinse away after sitting. Scrubbing with soap and hot water, while tedious, is often the safest choice for solid wood.

Back of house

While the reduced number of people moving through back-of-house areas reduces some of the airborne risks of COVID-19, that does not make cleaning and sanitizing procedures any less essential.

Hand sinks must be accessible and consistently stocked with soap and paper towels. Hand washing, while always important to food prep and handling, is even more vital during the pandemic.

Disinfect all hard, non-porous surfaces at least daily. Ideally, common surfaces such as prep tables and counters should be disinfected after each shift. Carefully read the instructions on the disinfectant’s instructions on the label. Each chemical has different requirements in terms of dilution, contact time and recommended ventilation/protection for the person using them.

Always clean surfaces first. This means washing away any food debris and other residues with soap and water. Only then can a disinfectant be fully effective.

Make sure that your sanitizing products are on the EPA List N of disinfectants suitable for killing the coronavirus. If you are unsure if a product is listed, this step-by-step guide can help you identify the product’s primary registration number and check its status.

Safely saving time and money

These sanitizing steps are essential to operating safely during COVID. Yet there’s no denying the burden they can place on limited resources. With restaurants already frequently operating on very thin margins, finding ways to save on costs without sacrificing efficacy is vital.

There are different ways to reduce the cost of disinfecting a restaurant. Some benefits involve saving the user’s time. Others reduce the overall costs of supplies. The right technology can do both at the same time.

Faster sanitization

Efficiency has always been tantamount to saving money, and COVID-19 hasn’t changed that. Keeping furniture, equipment and utilized areas to a minimum will save time in the cleaning process. This has the added benefit of meshing well with the recommendations published by the FDA.

Establishing a clear routine and ensuring staff follow it is another good time-saving strategy. It will reduce time wasted on confusion or duplicated efforts. It will also let staff plan ahead, and prevent sanitizing procedures from being rushed or forgotten.

Finally, the equipment you choose is your best opportunity to save on time. Sanitizing by hand or with traditional spray bottles takes a long time and is prone to gaps in application. Powered sprayers speed things up considerably, while improving the consistency of application. Even among powered sprayers, though, there are faster and slower options.

Electrostatic sprayers are one of the safest and most efficient sanitizing options available. They save up to 70% in time costs over conventional sanitizing methods. They allow for targeted spraying to evenly coat all surfaces, including awkward nooks and crannies. The positively charged particles adhere more evenly to the surface. This ensures the necessary contact time of the sanitizers is reached.

Saving on chemical costs

The ongoing costs of disinfecting a restaurant come down to the amount of chemicals used. One basic way to save on sanitizing chemicals is to transition to more one-time-use and disposable materials. Guidelines from the CDC have emphasized disposable items as an effective strategy against COVID-19. The drawback, of course, is that these disposable items also cost money. Any savings on sanitizing chemicals need to be weighed against the increase in spending on these materials.

Cleaning equipment choices are one of the most effective ways to reduce the amount of chemicals used. Electrostatic sprayers are particularly cost-effective, as they use up to 65% fewer chemicals over traditional cleaning methods. They do more with less, and allow you to stretch your sanitizing chemicals much further.

Safe choices for a global pandemic

The pandemic has disrupted normal operating procedures in nearly every industry. Fortunately, with careful planning and the right tools, it is possible to limit the risks of day-to-day restaurant operations. To that end, consider using this COVID-19 restaurant checklist to keep track of the steps you are taking. For more extensive preparedness checklists, the CDC and the FDA have published detailed guidelines for safe facility operation.

COVID-19 restaurant checklist

  • Prepare employees and patrons to understand when it’s appropriate to come in and when they should stay home. Prominently post signage regarding COVID-19 safe practices, such as this poster from the CDC.
  • Require frequent handwashing for employees. CDC guidelines for handwashing say to scrub with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Keep facilities well stocked with cleaning supplies. This includes soap and paper towels at employee sinks and in public-facing restrooms, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol available in front and back of house areas, and an adequate supply of sanitizing chemicals.
  • Train employees on how and when to wear appropriate PPE, such as cloth face coverings. Use gloves in only specific circumstances, such as handling soiled dishware. Employees should wash their hands every time they remove a set of gloves.
  • Train all employees on appropriate steps for sanitizing surfaces.
    • First, clean the surface of debris and residue.
    • Second, rinse the surface with water to remove residual cleaning residues.
    • Third, apply sanitizing solution according to label instructions. Subsequent rinsing steps are often required.
  • Arrange and prepare the front-of-house to allow for six feet of social distancing between individuals. This may include taping off safe standing distances in waiting areas and positioning tables appropriately.
  • Continue to stay up to date on government best-practices recommendations. This includes state and federal regulations.