The Customer Experience of Safe During the Pandemic and After

Author: Hal King, Ph.D., Managing Partner, Active Food Safety

The pandemic has significantly changed the business profile/model in the foodservice industry which has the potential to create greater food safety risk (e.g., labor shortages, supply chain issues, off-premise sales growth, ghost kitchens, etc.) but has also led to an increased awareness of these risk by both the foodservice industry/operators and their customers. Before the pandemic, foodborne disease outbreaks caused by foods prepared and sold in food service establishments (restaurants and any other retail foodservice businesses that prepare food for immediate consumption) were an annual public health issue in the United States.

Over 60% of all foodborne disease outbreaks were caused by restaurants to the point that they were endemic to the industry (see: CDC, 2019) Customers were aware of this food safety risk before the pandemic potentially influenced their decision to eat at a foodservice establishment.In an FDA report, this March 2021,74% of consumers stated that it is somewhat or very common to get food poisoning from restaurants FDA, 2021.  During this pandemic the foodservice industry has had to also focus on the prevention of the respiratory virus SARS-CoV-2 among its employees and customers in addition to the prevention of these foodborne diseases; also with a heightened awareness of this risk by customers and employees.

Early in the pandemic, public health officials cautioned the business community including foodservice businesses to focus on the sanitation of high touch surfaces that can lead to the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from a person’s hands to their eyes, nose, and mouth.  However, throughout the pandemic, we have learned that this mode of transmission is rare.  Some have argued that the continuation of a focus on the sanitation of high-touch surfaces is now only hygiene theater (The Atlantic, 2021) because the SARS-CoV-2 virus is rarely found to be transmitted from surface to person.  This may be accurate in most business environments including restaurants specific to the prevention of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

However, it is not accurate in the context of the prevention of foodborne pathogens in foodservice environments, where a large majority of foodborne illnesses are due to the cross-contamination of high touch surfaces to food from hands (including when using gloves that are used improperly (see: King, 2019).  The FDA has reported (and published peer-reviewed research, see:  Duret et al., 2017) that norovirus is significantly transmitted from employees to high touch surfaces (usually starting in the restrooms) to foods, and the sanitation of these high touch surfaces or elimination of high touch events (e.g., touch-free door handles) would significantly reduce the number of cases during a norovirus disease outbreak.  Thus in a food service business, the sanitation of high touch surfaces is not theater but actual safety;  as greater than 50% of all human norovirus outbreaks in the United States are caused by restaurants every year (CDC, 2021).

The influence of the customer’s perception of food safety in a food service establishment on a purchase decision and sales before the pandemic was likely low and/or was not well documented.  However, now safety is the top priority of a customer in choosing which restaurant to patronize during the pandemic, where the sanitation standards can influence a customer’s purchase behavior more than the price of the menu item (Simon-Kucher & Parnters, 2021).  Customers now indicate they plan to spend twice as much per month with restaurants that meet cleaning standards (QSR, 2021).

Deloitte’s Center for Consumer Insights found that during this pandemic “The winning formula isn’t just providing safety—it’s making safety consistently visible”. Four out of five people said they’d be more likely to patronize a restaurant if they knew what steps it was taking to enhance cleanliness, food safety, or guest safety, and when they did they would be willing to pay an average of 10 percent more. This puts a new value proposition/positive return on investment on the communication and transparency of safe (Deloitte, 2020). The study also found that cleanliness activities can have a greater effect on customer experience when they happen in front of a customer and are performed properly.  As one food industry executive in this study stated, “Safety is not just an investment in securing today’s order, but also a future order”.

The best practices a foodservice business can deploy to enhance actual safety but also the customer's experience of safe include:

Continue executing employee personal hygiene processes

Screening employees for illness (including for foodborne illness signs and symptoms)

  • ensure proper glove use when cleaning in front of customers and always when preparing foods
  • make hand washing often and visible in addition to required before preparing foods
  • Initiate customer personal hygiene
    • Providing hand sanitizer (wipes or liquid) for the customer upon entry to the establishment or at the table
    • Provide single-use surface sanitizing wipes at the table for customers to use so they may feel empowered for their safety
  • Make your environmental contamination processes visible to communicate safety to your customers
    • Increase cleaning of high touch surfaces in the dining areas and restrooms
    • Use color-coded cleaning tools to clean dining areas vs. restrooms/kitchens (customers notice)
    • Use absorbent pads vs. mopping up drink spills and don’t mop under a customer’s table while they are eating
    • Practice hospitality cleaning of the tables using surface sanitizer wipes vs cloth towels stored in sanitizer (which can increase the risk of contamination of surfaces with misuse, see: King, 2018).
    • Keep tables, chairs, and floors clean at all times before a customer sits  (no sticky tables) by using a hostess during high volume dayparts

The customer experience of safe has become a significant driver of sales for the first time in the history of the restaurant industry.  As the pandemic of the ’20s hopefully ends soon, the foodservice industry should take advantage of and continue these operating procedures with real improved safety outcomes gained during the pandemic.  The food service industry could also leverage the customer experience of safe as a means to sustain sales and grow their business.

Meet the Author

Dr. Hal King is Managing Partner at Active Food Safety with over 16 years in Enterprise food safety management leadership and the recipient of the 2018 NSF International Food Safety Leadership and Innovation Award.  He is Founder/CEO of Public Health Innovations (PHI), a book author, a public health scientist/innovator, and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Public Health.