October 12, 2022

P.F. Chang’s Serino wins Association's food safety award

Cheesecake Factory’s Al Baroudi also honored with Lifetime Achievement award at Food Safety & Quality Assurance meeting.
Christina Serino Food Safety award winner

Serino’s advice to others: "If you're talking about menu items, think about their preparation from a scientific perspective, and don't be afraid to express concerns."

The National Restaurant Association recently honored Christina Serino, P.F. Chang’s senior director of Quality Assurance & Food Safety, with the 2022 Outstanding Leader in Food Safety Award. The award, sponsored by Ecolab, is given annually in recognition of excellence in food safety and quality assurance. Past winners include Jorge Hernandez of Wendy’s and First Watch’s John Zimmermann.

During the conference, Dr. Ata “Al” Baroudi, the Cheesecake Factory’s vice president of Quality Assurance & Food Safety, received the Association’s Lifetime Achievement award, honoring excellence in food safety. Baroudi has been with the Cheesecake Factory since 2008.

Following the Association’s Food Safety & Quality Assurance Expert Exchange conference last month, we asked Serino, a member of P.F. Chang’s QA team since 2016, about the current state of food safety and how things have changed in recent years.

Why is food safety so important?
We’ve got to ensure we give our guests safe food and a safe dining experience. It starts where the food is grown or produced and reaches all the way to our guests’ plates and now their takeout containers. Food safety is something we’ve got to consider from beginning to end. People don't always think about the potential spread of a foodborne illness or other pathogens, but the possibility exists. It’s our job to ensure everyone’s health, well-being, and safety at each step along the way.

What's been the biggest change since the pandemic?
Food-safety behaviors have become heightened. Our guests are hyperaware of what we're doing. They're watching everything, whether you’re washing your hands, touching your face, or how you’re holding glasses and dishes so they aren’t contaminated. They really appreciate it when operations take extra care to do a great job for them. People didn’t dine out a lot for a long time so now they're more selective, patronizing restaurants they feel they can really trust.

What’s been your biggest achievement to date?
I’d have to say it’s our extensive training and food allergens programs. We really take food allergens seriously and have done a lot of work to make our allergen and gluten-free program successful. One of the things I oversee from beginning to end is to make sure we know how manufacturers make the products we use, whether their facilities really are gluten-free, and what we're doing through training to store and handle it properly in our restaurants. That’s one thing that sets us apart from others.

What does this award mean to you?
It’s recognition of the hard work we, as food-safety professionals, do. It isn’t always easy to be the person who sometimes has to say no to menu suggestions or take a hard look at suppliers and decide we can't use them. It’s challenging and not always smooth or easy. It’s awesome that the Association is giving us an award to recognize that hard work. 

What are you planning to implement going forward?
More training solely focused on food safety. We've decided visual training is better for the staff, so we're working on producing videos. We’ve just finished one on hand washing. They’re short, 2-minute videos featuring employees performing behaviors in our kitchens, showing good and not-so-good examples. We're making a series of 10 different training videos we’ll use to onboard employees and for ongoing training. I'm hoping this will be an easier way to train rather than giving them a book or manual to read. We're really excited about expanding how we train our employees.

What's the best advice you’d give other food safety professionals?
Don’t be afraid to give your professional opinion. We [food safety professionals] are typically a small group, and not everyone knows what we know. I tell my staff all the time that we’re the subject matter experts. If you're talking about menu items, think about their preparation from a scientific perspective, and don't be afraid to express concerns. At the same time, don't be afraid to say you don't know the answer. There are things we won’t know that we’ll have to research, but that's what’s exciting about this industry. There's always more to learn.

Learn more about our Food Safety & Quality Assurance Expert Exchange