By Francine L. Shaw
Many of us enter a kitchen without thinking about the design, as far as food safety is concerned. I visited a facility that was 95% finished before anyone realized that a three-bay sink–critical to proper sanitation of dishes and other equipment–hadn’t been part of the design plan. This facility had limited space, so it wasn’t possible to bump out a wall or expand the space. The sink had to be installed somewhere. The builders ended up placing it right beside a floor mixer, with the wash sink on the mixer end! They were literally inches apart, giving ample opportunity for dirty dishwater to splash into the dough mixer and contaminate the food. The restaurant team agreed not to wash dishes at the same time they were utilizing the mixer, which was inefficient and problematic in their day-to-day activities. The designer/architect should have done a plan review and consulted a food safety expert before beginning construction. By doing so, they would have potentially eliminated this problem.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), contaminated utensils and equipment are a top risk factor for foodborne illness outbreaks. If equipment is difficult to clean, it’s more likely not to be cleaned properly (if at all). For instance, meat slicers and soft-serve ice cream machines are often difficult to clean, and some brands are better than others. There are soft serve machines that have hundreds of pieces that need to be washed, rinsed and sanitized regularly, which means your staff must be willing to commit several hours of labor to this task.
Meat slicers on the surface may look nice and shiny but look a little closer, behind the blade. Take off the piece that holds the sharpening stone, look in the crevices and around the dial. It is beyond gross and disgusting. Meats are, of course, perishable foods that easily breed many forms of bacteria and other microorganisms. Small pieces of meat or other sliced foods usually get caught in and collect between the blade and the slicing machine of a meat slicer. If left for a period of time, microorganisms will grow in and around the meat particles, posing a health risk for the foods sliced on the unclean machine.
Additionally, I’ve seen gaskets around refrigeration unit doors that were growing mold and other bacteria, making it unsanitary and potentially harmful to store foods inside. They now make refrigeration units with a different type of seal (and no gaskets) that’s much easier to clean and maintain.
Cross-contamination and cross-contact are important factors to consider when designing a restaurant. One design flaw could have life-threatening ramifications.
When planning, designing and building a restaurant kitchen:
- Plan the flow. The flow of your prep area should make sense for efficiency, as well as food safety. This will save time, money and reduce risk. For instance, when your servers take food to your guests, they should never have to walk through the dirty dish area, which increases the food safety risk.
- Ensure that hot water tanks hold a sufficient amount of hot water. If they don’t hold enough hot water to get you through your busiest rush period of washing and sanitizing dishes, you either need to get a booster or a larger hot water tank.
- Purchase equipment that’s easy to clean, with minimal nooks and crannies.
- Consider even the smallest details–like the amount of tile grout you use. The less tile grout, the less risk for chipping. Chipping–and cracks or holes in walls and floors–equal bacteria growth. Your best bet is to use a non-porous material that doesn’t allow bacteria to grow.
- Ensure that your floors have drains so they can be deep cleaned regularly.
- Make certain that areas that are impossible to reach for cleaning are sealed tightly. It is impossible for anyone to clean a quarter-inch gap between a wall and a counter space that the contractor neglected to close. This will eventually become an insect or rodent haven, which is obviously a food safety hazard.
- Consider the placement of your sinks. Kitchen sinks must never be in an area where there is potential for contaminated water to splash on consumables, clean dishes or anything else it could contaminate. In tight areas, a barrier may need to be installed between the sink and a prep area.
- Install multiple sinks for washing dishes, produce, poultry, hands, etc.
- Designate certain equipment and prep space for allergen-free/gluten- free cooking to safely accommodate your guests with food allergies and intolerances.
- Purchase or make your own allergy kits, complete with color-coded chopping boards and pans and utensils, which are kept clean, covered and stored away from flours and other potential allergens. Purple is widely used and recognized to designate allergy-friendly equipment.
- Designate an allergy-friendly fryer, which isn’t used for any common allergens, including breaded products, fish or shellfish, or foods containing nuts.
- Wash and sanitize allergy equipment (and surfaces) between each use.
- Design separate storage space for common food allergens (flours, nuts, etc.) to avoid cross-contact with allergy-friendly foods.
- Design space in your food allergy area to hold different-shaped or different-colored plates, and use these dishes to serve allergy-friendly meals.
- Ensure that your ventilation systems don’t spread flour dust, nut particles or other allergens throughout the facility, which could contaminate virtually everything. Also, once your kitchen opens, be sure that all flours, nuts and other common allergens remain covered to prevent cross-contact.
The seemingly minor details in a kitchen (grout, moldings, etc.) are truly a big deal in terms of keeping guests safer. And bigger issues–such as placement of a three-compartment sink–must be carefully considered at the start of a design project. While it’s critical to have a competent design and construction team for your project, don’t overlook the importance of having a food safety expert consult on the project from concept to implementation. Food safety experts bring a valuable perspective to the table, and can advise on all matters from big (how kitchen design impacts food safety and reduces foodborne illness risks) to small (the easiest gaskets to clean and keep sanitary). By working collaboratively, your design, construction and food safety expert can maximize your future successes and minimize food safety risks.