Don't panic, but it's time to prepare for your restaurant's health inspection.
Health inspections are routine at restaurants – and for good reason. 72% of Americans eat food from a restaurant at least twice a week, meaning hundreds of millions of Americans frequently trust foodservice establishments to prepare their meals in a safe and sanitary environment. And regardless of whether these guests are dining in, taking out, or getting delivery, food safety needs to be at the top of mind for your restaurant and your staff.
Passing a restaurant inspection requires you to consider several elements – from staff hygiene, to food handling, to the state of cooking stations. Addressing these measures only helps your restaurant pass an inspection, but also keeps guests and employees safe from such dangers as E. coli outbreaks and other foodborne illnesses. Luckily, with thorough processes and protocols, you can keep your restaurant safe, clean, and prepared to ace any restaurant inspection.
Read on for a step-by-step checklist for keeping your restaurant clean and inspection-ready.
What is a Restaurant Inspection Checklist?
A restaurant inspection checklist is a tool to help restaurants prepare for a health inspection. Included on the checklist are tasks the restaurant will need to complete in order to pass an inspection – notably in the areas of sanitation, food storage, food preparation, serving customers, employee hygiene, and pest control.
How does a typical inspection work and how do I prepare?
Health inspections are periodic check-ins by local officials to be certain a restaurant is running a safe operation for its guests. Inspections are almost always unannounced and tend to happen twice a year, but can be as infrequent as once a year in New York City or as often as three times a year in Los Angeles.
The specific process for a health inspection will depend on your location, but the general structure will go something like this:
- Introduction: An inspector comes in and alerts you of the health inspection. Make sure you ask the inspector for their credentials, and if you suspect the inspector is inauthentic, call their office to confirm the appointment. If confirmed, do not attempt to stop the inspector from doing their job.
- Inspection: The inspector will begin to survey your restaurant and kitchen. You should stay with the inspector in case they have questions for you (and vice versa). The inspector will also take notes pertaining to the hygiene of your restaurant.
- Assessment: The inspector will provide you with your grade or assessment, as well as any follow-up tasks pertaining to violations. In some states or cities, you'll be required to display your grade for guests to see.
- Follow-Up: Depending on the severity of your violations, you may need to address certain tasks as soon as the day of the inspection to avoid a temporary shut down. You may possibly be notified of a re-inspection of the restaurant if needed.
Preparing for a restaurant inspection is not a one-and-done process – it's an ongoing one. Health inspectors can show up at any time, meaning your restaurant must always be ready to pass an inspection. However, there are actionable ways to stay prepared for when an inspector shows up at your door.
- Run Test Inspections. Access a copy of your area's health inspection grading criteria, then develop processes to ensure you're able to adequately pass all of them. You should also run regular test inspections to hold yourself and your staff accountable for any shortcomings. You can even use a task management software to design special tasks lists for employees come inspection time.
- Develop a HACCP Plan. A Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HAACP) plan is recommended by the FDA to control any hazards surrounding food safety throughout the entire restaurant supply chain. Writing and sticking to this plan is a huge part of passing an inspection.
- Keep Your Eyes Open. Outside of mock inspections, managers should keep their eyes peeled for violation-worthy offenses, such as cooks not using gloves or employees not washing their hands long enough. Enforcing these behaviors when you can see them is the best way to avoid violations before it's too late.
Critical areas to cover in your restaurant inspection checklist
While every restaurant inspection will be different based on the restaurant's location and local guidelines, there are key subjects that nearly all restaurant inspections will focus on. Again, it's best to work with your local health department to ensure you're checking all the boxes here, but until then, here's a list of what you can do to get ready to pass your next inspection.
It goes without saying that general sanitation in a restaurant is a must. All surfaces should be cleaned at the beginning and end of each day, as well as between shifts. However, surfaces that touch food not only needs to be cleaned but sanitized. The difference here lies in the extra steps to remove germs and grease from surfaces and equipment. To keep the restaurant sanitary, you should:
- Stock up on sanitizers and disinfectants designed to keep a restaurant kitchen safe.
- Develop a schedule for sanitizing bathrooms, door handles, tables, and any other surfaces touched by guests and/or employees.
- Have a process for taking out the trash, cleaning the areas where trash is kept, and holding employees accountable for washing hands after handling trash.
- Sanitize all cutting boards, utensils, and kitchen equipment after they are exposed to raw meat.
Proper storage ensures food is safe to eat before and after being prepared. It helps prevent cross-contamination and keeps food fresher to mitigate the risk of serving something that has prematurely spoiled. To keep your food fresh enough to pass an inspection, follow these guidelines:
- Label stored food with their use-by dates and follow a first-in, first-out inventory method (FIFO Method–learn other restaurant lingo).
- Freeze and refrigerate foods at the proper temperatures to keep them from going bad (40° F or below for refrigerated foods and 0° F for frozen foods). Functional thermometers should be used to guarantee this.
- Wrap or contain foods to prevent spills and/or the growth of bacteria. These containers should be airtight to keep ingredients fresh.
- Regularly clean storage space and walk-ins.
- Keep the meat as low to the ground as possible to prevent meat juices trickling down – but keep in mind that food should also be stored at least six inches off the ground to avoid contamination.
Even if it's stored correctly, food needs to be prepared in a way that ensures safe consumption by guests. This means chefs and line cooks should adhere to the following protocols:
- Cooking meats to their recommended safe temperatures, according to the USDA.
- Utilizing separate cutting boards for each type of meat, as well as separate cutting boards for non-meat items.
- Ensuring meat is safely thawed and defrosted, as improper thawing can increase the growth of bacteria.
- Sanitizing kitchen equipment before using it to prepare any allergen-inducing foods, as well as when customers alert you of an allergy.
- Have staff get certified in food protection through a program like ServSafe (the number of employees required to be certified varies by location).
After preparation, the next step is getting guests' food served to them safely. Recommended ways to do that include:
- Providing guests with glasses, utensils, and plates that have been thoroughly cleaned by dishwashers and inspected before use.
- Keeping servers' and runners' bare hands away from food on the way to a table.
- Enforcing the rule that once food touches a customer's table, it cannot be re-served to other guests for safety reasons.
- Sealing all food for off-premise dining in takeout containers to secure safe delivery.
Even if food is stored, prepared, and served to customers safely, an ill employee can jeopardize everything.
Unfortunately, food workers tend to feel immense pressure to show up to work even when they're not feeling great due to the fear of lost wages or creating a bad impression of themselves in their managers' eyes. More than half of restaurant employees admit that they come into a shift when they're sick, and these employees need to know that the benefit of a fully-staffed shift does not outweigh the threat of passing illnesses off to customers and other staff members.
Importantly, the FDA notes that both managers and employees have responsibilities when it comes to worker health. Employees should report certain symptoms or exposures outlined in this FDA guide, while managers should “ask the employee to stop work immediately and leave the food establishment” when certain illnesses are apparent.
Specifically, you can increase your chances of passing a restaurant inspection by adding these employee hygiene tasks to your checklist:
- Ensuring employees have ready access to dedicated handwashing stations so they can wash their hands before and after handling food for at least 20 seconds.
- Enforcing employee glove-wearing to prevent cross-contamination. These single-use gloves should be the right size for each employee, discarded if torn or soiled, and replaced after touching raw meat.
- Communicating which symptoms mean employees should not come into work (also, it should be made clear that calling in sick for one of these reasons won't hurt their standing in the restaurant).
- Dictating where staff can (and cannot) eat during their meal breaks.
- Making it clear when employees should have their hair back and/or when to wear head coverings, in addition to knowing not to touch their faces and follow general hygienic best practices on the job (i.e. coughing into their elbows instead of their hands, covering open wounds with bandages, etc.).
With 7shifts Employee Health Check feature, restaurants can quickly screen staff members for illness symptoms and risk factors with a customizable set of questions before they can clock in for their shift.
Those pesky pests can cause your restaurant to fail an inspection instantly. Bugs and rodents are not only off-putting to guests, they also increase the risk of foodborne illness and practically scream “lack of hygiene” to an inspector.
Regular sanitation and proper food storage will do their job in preventing most major pest issues, but there are indeed some extra steps that must be taken to mitigate the risk even further, such as:
- Using poison-free traps around and under kitchen equipment that may attract insects.
- Stocking up on insecticides like Raid to quickly get rid of bugs when spotted.
- Making a point to clean up crumbs and food buildup on the floor.
- Not forgetting about the restaurant's exterior. All entrances and exits, dumpsters, and even lights can be sources for bugs, so make a point to keep these pest-free.
- Regularly cleaning the drains to prevent drain flies from infesting the restaurant.
State-Specific Resources for Restaurant Inspections
Because all states (and sometimes cities) have their own processes for restaurant health inspections, we've listed out links to official resources to help you get started. If your area is not listed below, simply type your city, state, or county name into a search engine, followed by “restaurant health inspection,” and you should be taken to the most accurate page to help you prepare.
Health inspections in California are conducted on a local level rather than state-wide. We've linked out to the informational pages for each of the counties below:
On a state-level, New York has this resource center with guidance and documentation on how to keep the restaurant safe and inspection-ready.
Like California, New York runs inspections in each county. New York City has its own restaurant inspection process page with resources for new and existing restaurants. Resources are also available for Albany, Erie, and Onondaga counties.
Other State-Specific Resources
- Arizona: Maricopa County, Pima County
- State of Florida
- State of Georgia
- Illinois: Entire State, Chicago
- Massachusetts: Boston, Worcester
- Michigan: Detroit, Kent County, Washtenaw County
- New Jersey: Bergen County, Middlesex County
- North Carolina: Entire State, Mecklenburg County, Wake County
- Ohio: Entire State, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus
- State of Oregon
- Pennsylvania: Allegheny County, Philadelphia
- Texas: Entire State, Inspection Report Document
- State of Washington
Restaurant Inspection FAQs
What do I do after the health inspection is over?
You'll need to acknowledge the inspection with a signature. Assuming you've passed your restaurant health inspection, you may be asked to display your score for patrons to see. If you haven't passed, you'll need to swiftly address the sources for violations. Depending on your local requirements, the timeline for fixing these issues will vary, but your inspector will instruct you on what to do and by when. If you have not passed, you may also need to pay a fine.
What happens when a restaurant fails a health inspection?
The world is not over for a restaurant if it does not pass an inspection. If violations are severe enough, a restaurant may be forced to temporarily close down at the discretion of the inspector. However, for minor violations, restaurants may be given the opportunity to address them immediately to obtain a revised passing grade, or the restaurant may be subjected to a follow-up re-inspection. Like with all aspects of a health inspection, the aftermath is completely contingent on which state or city your restaurant is in.
Passing Your Restaurant Inspection
Although the thought of restaurant inspections may loom over you, they shouldn't. These inspections are simply an insurance policy that will keep your guests, your employees, and your restaurant healthy – so stock up on those cleaning supplies, create your restaurant inspection checklist, and get to work.
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