January 17, 2023

Ten-hut! How to ace your next inspection

The best time to get ready for your next visit from the health department is right now.
Restaurant inspection

Inspectors will generally focus on overall cleanliness, hot and cold food storage, serving temperatures, food cooling procedures, and how employees handle food.

Food safety inspections are a normal part of doing business in the restaurant industry. Their purpose is simple: to help you protect your customers from getting sick. In truth, food safety inspectors are your partners. They’re there not to make your life difficult or to close your business down, but rather to help you keep your doors open and your customers safe from foodborne illness.

Since health department inspectors don’t announce when they’re coming to review your food safety procedures, the best way you can prepare for a visit is by making food safety the mantra by which you and your employees operate. Just as turning out great food helps you avoid negative food reviews, your best defense against a poor health inspection is to have a good offense when it comes to food safety procedures. 

Preparing for an inspection means developing and fostering a food safety culture in your restaurant. Everyone from the owner or CEO down to the bus staff and dishwashers should walk the talk every day. The checklist of things to do to stay prepared for an inspection should already exist as your standard operating procedures or hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) plan. 

However, to ace an inspection, sometimes it’s helpful to put yourself in the shoes of an inspector and understand how they look at your business.

What health inspectors are really looking for

Depending on how busy they are, inspectors may spend as little as 30 minutes in your operation, but you should plan on an hour to 90 minutes. In general, inspectors will focus on overall cleanliness, and critical areas such as both hot and cold food storage and serving temperatures, food cooling procedures, and how employees handle food. But you might be surprised by some things they hope to see.
Nearly full hand sink wastebaskets. After introducing themselves, many inspectors will make a point of washing their hands. “It sets a good example for the operator,” says Keith Chhum, a senior health inspector for the King County, Wash., Public Health Department in Seattle, “and it lets me know if the handwashing sink is properly supplied with soap, hot water and paper towels.” In addition to wanting to see employees washing their hands, “I also look in the hand sink wastebasket. If it’s nearly full, that tells me employees are likely washing their hands frequently. If it’s fairly empty, employees probably aren’t washing their hands often enough.” 

Managers or supervisors sending employees home. Food safety inspectors know how hard it is to fully staff your business, and they understand how important it is to show up at work. But an employee who comes to work sick is a threat to your customers and your business. “I look for employees who are sick,” Chhum says. “They’re the ones who can cause or spread foodborne illness. Sick employees need to stay home.”

Disposable glove boxes at food-handling stations. “We don’t want to see bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods,” says Chhum. In addition to making sure employees who handle RTE food are wearing gloves, well-used or even nearly empty boxes of disposable gloves by stations tells him that not only are employees using gloves but they’re changing them frequently, too.

Glasses of ice water accessible. No health inspector wants to see personal beverages, especially in uncovered containers, anywhere near food being prepared, cooked or served. However, they do want to see all employees equipped with stem thermometers, preferably digital models, and they want to see employees using them properly to take food temperatures, at least once an hour or so. And those thermometers should be calibrated. Placing the probe in a glass of ice water will verify the thermometer is reaching freezing, but make sure the water is discarded immediately after calibration. Thermometers should be calibrated after their first use, after they have been dropped (sanitize, then calibrate), or after they’ve gone from one temperature extreme to the other.

Employees just getting their work done. Health inspectors want your employees to enjoy what they do. But if you or your employees are smiling as much as theme park cast members they may suspect you’re simply trying to butter them up. “Just act normal when an inspector shows up,” Chhum says. “We want to see how you do things every day.” If employees aren’t doing something correctly, most inspectors welcome the chance to educate them. 

A clean can opener. “It’s a really small thing, but cleaning the can opener often tells me that employees take pride in their workplace,” Chhum says. “A lot of people forget to do it.” Clean can openers, like clean bathrooms, indicate the whole restaurant is probably pretty clean.

Access an entire series of posters on how to store, cool, and serve foods safely here. And read more tips on being ready for health inspectors here.