How to Prep Your Restaurant for Flu Season

Winter is coming and with it flu season. Each year, 31.4 million Americans visit the doctor due to flu symptoms. And with bars and restaurants being a hub of human activity all-year round, there’s a good chance that someone will drag in some unwanted bugs into your location.

The question is: What are you doing about it?  

One of the biggest concerns you should have as a restaurant operator is keeping your guests and staff safe. It matters with allergies, it matters with data breaches, and it matters with illness – be it the flu or foodborne. Just ask Chipotle. So, what are you doing to prevent the pervasion of the flu from your restaurant? 

And while you can never completely keep the invading hordes of illness from breaching your establishment, you can be proactive and making sure your staff and guests stay as safe and healthy as possible.

Let’s look at what restaurants can do to prep for flu season. 

Keep Your Restaurant Clean & Sanitized

Restaurants can stop the spreading of the flu by making sure their locations are immaculately clean regularly.

This is the no-brainer item of the list. Having a clean restaurant is paramount to stopping the flu. This means cleaning and sanitizing all parts of your restaurant regularly (which we’re sure you’re already doing). 

Also think about items that get touched regularly that don’t typically get cleaned -- like pens. Pens used for signing checks aren’t usually on our “to clean” list but are one of the most common ways of spreading germs at restaurants. Same goes for tableside tablets and devices. Also don’t forget things like light switches, hand towels, phones, menus, etc. that should be cleaned more often than you already do.

BONUS! Outside of not wanting to get your guests sick, there’s a reputation side to this coin. Looking hygienic is paramount to guest satisfaction. In fact, 59% of guest think cleanliness is just as important as order accuracy, friendly service and a good value, and one in eight guests warn friends and fam about cleanliness at restaurants.

Cleanliness starts in the bathroom. Most of your guests will think your entire establishment is gross and dirty if the bathroom looks grubby, so start there and continue outward.

Get Yo’ Staff Vaccinated!

Restaurant operators can host onsite flu vaccine clinics for both their staff and guests.

It’s far from a panacea for stopping the flu, but flu vaccines are better than nothing. According to the CDC, flu shot effectiveness varies but reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40%-60% among the overall population.

Flu vaccines aren’t always about making sure the vaccinated person doesn’t get sick either. It also boosts your community’s herd immunization so your staff and guests that can’t get vaccinated because of health conditions have a lesser risk of getting the flu.

The good news is most health insurances will cover getting the flu vaccine at no cost to you and your staff. Offering your team a small break during their shift to get vaccinated is a big step to keeping your restaurant from becoming a petri dish. If you don’t offer health insurance to your employees, you may consider ponying up the cash to get those who can vaccinated. Some pharmacies will even do onsite flu clinics, so you can get your whole team covered before their shifts begin.

BONUS! You might want to take this one step further and host an onsite flu shot clinic for your guests, too. Free vaccines for your guests that still need them. It’s a great way of giving back to your community.

How’s Your Restaurant’s Sick Time Policy?

The best way to keep your staff from getting guests sick with the flu is to not come into work at all. The bad news is that PTO sick time for restaurant staff is still pretty rare in our industry. According to a 2012 study from Oliva’s Food Chain Workers Alliance and the ROCU, 79% of food workers receive no paid sick time. That means that if sick employees miss a shift, they miss pay.

This is disastrous in itself, but considering the industry’s relatively low wages, most restaurant staff go into work while sick because they “can’t afford to lose pay.” As a result, 51% of food workers always or frequently go to work when they’re sick. That highly increases the chances that your restaurant infects guests.

And it’s not that restaurant staff employees are being careless. 90% of food workers feel responsible for the safety and well-being of their customers, but they also have bills to pay. So, if you don’t offer PTO sick time to your staff, you might want to reconsider that policy for your staff’s, guests’ and restaurant’s reputation’s sake. 

Refresh Your Staff Training

Restaurant managers should make sure they refresh their staff’s training on hand washing and other hygienic practices.

You’re required, by law, to have signs telling your staff to wash their hands after using the bathroom, but are they doing it right?

One study showed that even though restaurants are routinely inspected for cleanliness, up to 60% of restaurants have insufficient food hygiene practices and only 5% of the population is washing their hands for the recommended 20 seconds. This ripe for disaster and a sure way of spreading illness from staff to staff and from staff to guests.

Now’s a good time to remind your staff on best practices for washing their hands, cleaning food equipment, and other health & food safety policies you have in place. StateFoodSafety has numerous posters on food safety that you can easily print out and hang up for your staff’s reference.  

Educate Your Guests

Do your best to educate how your restaurant’s guests can prevent catching the flu.

You can’t force your guests to learn how to keep the flu away, but you can do your best to educate them on how not to get sick or get others sick. It can be as simple as hanging up posters in your bathroom on how to effectively wash their hands after using the bathroom or a little note on the menu suggesting washing their hands before eating.

You may even want to hand out complimentary hand wipes to your guests as a way of staying hygienic during their meal.

Dealing with Sick Guests

Tips to manage sick restaurant guests with the flu

While there are things you can do to make sure your staff isn’t getting your guests sick, it’s harder to manage your guests from getting your staff and other guests sick. 

A common way of picking up a virus is touching a surface – like a restaurant table or a menu or dinnerware. Get the germ on your hands and then touch your eyes, mouth or nose, and you’ve given the virus a one-way ticket to your body’s systems.

If a guest walks in that is obvious sick, you have two main options:

  1. As them to leave (very risky)

  2. Manage the situation as best you can

Managing the guest is, honestly, probably your best option. You can seat sick guests in areas of your restaurant where they’re less likely to come in contact with the majority of your guests. Once they’re done eating, make sure their plates and utensils get cleaned ASAP to prevent contaminating your staff and restaurant, and be sure your staff gives the guests area a good scrub-down before seating your next guest there. 

Also make sure your staff is washing their hands regularly when serving sick guests. It’s a pain, but worth the effort.