The Bar Can Be a Breeding Ground for Foodborne Illnesses, So Get Serious About Preventing Them and Keeping Guests Safe
Remember a couple of years ago when investigations into the cleanliness of lemons used as drink garnishes made front-page news and seemingly every TV news show in the country covered the disgusting facts? Everyone was up in latex-glove-covered arms over the bacteria found on the lemons, leaving many people, even today, refusing a lemon as a garnish. However, it’s not just lemons that can cause such a furor. Yes, lemons need to be washed thoroughly before used as a garnish, but they’re not the only items that can spread foodborne illness from behind the bar.
“There are a lot of foodborne illnesses that can be transferred through employees’ hands alone — E. coli, norovirus, even Hepatitis A,” says Cynthia L. Parenteau, a food safety consultant with Boston-based Berger Food Safety Consulting. The first key to protecting guests from illness is perhaps the simplest: Wash your hands.
“Always wash your hands. I don’t know if we can ever say that enough in our industry,” says Sam Stanovich, director of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ServSafe Alcohol program. “Always properly wash your hands.” But what exactly does “properly” mean? For starters, ServSafe guidelines say you must wash hands and arms with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds before every shift and again during the shift, especially after touching your hair or face and between food handling. Parenteau points out bars must have a sink that is used only for hand washing — separate from the sink used for washing glassware, utensils and other tools behind the bar.
Cracking the Code
But there’s more to bar food safety than just proper hand washing. The ice machine also can be a dangerous cesspool for bacteria and unsafe conditions. Every expert has the same warning: Don’t ever put a glass into the ice bin to get ice for a beverage; always use a clean ice scoop. Why? For one, if you didn’t follow Step 1 correctly and your hands aren’t washed well enough, once your hand goes into the ice bin, the ice becomes dirty. Also, the glass could chip inside the ice bin without you or the staff noticing, meaning the glass chips could be scooped up and served in the next cocktail, Stanovich explains. Talk about a dangerous drink.
Even before dealing with the ice machine, be sure glassware is cleaned and sanitized properly. Glasses must be washed at the proper temperature (at least 171 degrees Fahrenheit) or with chemical sanitizers in a low-temperature dishwasher. One thing to note: Low-temp dishwashers don’t do well removing lipstick from glasses, so take extra care to double check for stains, says Chuck Hamburg, professor of hospitality management at Roosevelt University in Chicago and a partner in Creative Hospitality Associates, a foodservice consulting company.
After you’ve ensured the glasses are washed thoroughly, proper storage is key. Hamburg notes that stemless glassware should be stacked with paper in between to prevent cracks, and stemmed wine, cocktail and Cognac glasses should be stored separately (never stacked in some dangerous fashion). And while hanging racks were banned from use years ago because patrons’ cigarette smoke could get on the glass, with most bars now smoke-free, Hamburg says the racks are an option again. In the end, though, glassware is best stored on a clean shelf or rack; storing glasses on the bar is completely unsanitary, although if it must be done, be sure to put down matted material.
The kitchen isn’t the only place where sanitizing is crucial, but there are easy ways to make your bar more sanitary. “Sometimes people forget that a bar area has food-contact surfaces that need to be cleaned and sanitized,” says Paul McGinnis, vice president of marketing at St. Paul, Minn.-based Ecolab Food Safety Specialties. “Using clean towels in conjunction with a sanitizer bucket between uses is necessary.” As ServSafe’s Stanovich points out, don’t use the same bar towel to clean the top of the bar that you’re using to clean glassware.
When it comes to food-contact surfaces, such as cutting boards and knives, they all must be washed, rinsed and sanitized before use. This means cleaning your cutting boards between uses and between items — don’t cut the limes on the cutting board with a paring knife and then use that same board and knife to cut up other garnishes. “It’s important to understand the idea of cross-contamination,” Stanovich says, “so you’re not taking the [germs] from your paring knife that you’re cutting your lemons with to other areas behind the bar.”
With the trend toward more creative, inspired garnishes, it’s especially crucial to wash the cutting board and knives between uses. “People have a tendency just to think when you cut fruit, it’s fruit — you’re not going to get the board dirty. People don’t take the same attitudes toward fruit [as they do meat],” Hamburg says. “But especially in this day and age when you have a lot of the garnishes that are ‘real’ foods —shrimp, tomatoes, salami — when you’re preparing that, you need to make sure everything is kept clean.”
Plus — back to those dirty lemons — you’ll need to wash lemons and limes before cutting, preferably in the kitchen’s food prep sink. If it’s done at the bar, that’s OK, Parenteau says, but it must be done in a place where there’s no source of contamination. “I wouldn’t do it right in front of a customer — they might cough or sneeze — or [do it] next to the dishwashing sink,” she says.
And as for that garnish jockey? Clean and sanitize it at least every 24 hours, being sure to dump out all unused garnishes at the end of each day.
When you go to add those fresh, properly cut-up garnishes to drinks, keep this in mind: Some states allow bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food such as lemons, limes and cherries used for garnish, but others don’t, so check your local regulations and make sure bartenders are trained properly. It’s best to use a toothpick or tongs to handle garnishes whenever possible, McGinnis recommends.
Additionally, make sure the garnishes are stored at the right temperature; Stanovich notes that most garnishes can be held at room temperature. However, Parenteau points out that melons are the main exception to the rule in terms of fruit garnishes — they must be refrigerated.
Proper food temperature is crucial to bar safety, from the creams and egg whites used in beverages to the snack food buffet that might be displayed on the bar. “As the bartender, you’re sitting right there watching [the food], so if something doesn’t look right, make sure that you report it,” Stanovich says.
A Lasting Impression
With so many areas to keep clean, it can be a lot to handle and a busy bartender or bar manager easily overlook many of them. So why do you really need to care about having a dirty bar? For starters, the legal ramifications can be huge. Parenteau, who consults and is involved with safety inspections, says that while fines from the health department are the most common form of punishment for bar safety violations, “one critical violation can close the operation.”
Beyond that, having an unsafe bar could put your guests in danger. “You could hurt your reputation, you could make somebody ill, you could injure somebody,” Stanovich warns.
Finally, there’s the fact that an initial impression will have a lasting effect. “Many times the bar is the customer’s first impression of an establishment,” McGinnis explains. “If a patron sees ‘clean and safe’ when observing the bar area — and bartender — it will have a positive impact on their entire experience.” NCB
Keep It Clean
September is National Food Safety Education Month, and we want to help you keep your guests and your business safe. The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ServSafe Alcohol program lays out the rules that every employee in the bar, no matter what his or her role, should be trained in: personal hygiene, cleaning and sanitizing, controlling time and temperature and cross-contamination and cross-contact. Here’s a good checklist from ServSafe Alcohol to keep handy as you make sure your employees are keeping your guests — and themselves — safe.
✔ Wash hands and arms for at least 20 seconds with soap and hot running water before and during every shift.
✔ Wear a bandage over wounds on hands and arms.
✔ Inform your supervisor of any health problems before coming to work
Cleaning and Sanitizing
✔ After cleaning and rinsing food-contact surfaces, sanitize them either with approved chemical sanitizers or by soaking them for 30 seconds in hot water (at least 171 degrees Fahrenheit).
✔ Store glasses and cups upside down on a clean and sanitized shelf or rack.
✔Always follow your operation’s daily master cleaning schedule for the bar area.
Controlling Time and Temperature
✔ Ensure that refrigeration units are functioning properly by using a calibrated thermometer to randomly sample the temperature of stored food.
✔ Store foods and beverages at the proper temperatures.
✔ Serve food promptly. A foodborne illness can result if food is time-temperature abused.
✔ Food on a buffet must be held in equipment that will keep it at the correct temperatures. Using a thermometer, check the temperatures of foods on a buffet at least every four hours. Throw out any food that is not at the right temperature. Remember that pathogens grow well in food held between the temperatures of 41 degrees Fahrenheit and 135 degrees Fahrenheit
Cross-Contamination and Cross-Contact
✔ Use ice scoops or tongs to handle ice. Never scoop ice with a glass or with your hands.
✔ Store ice scoops outside of the ice machine in a clean, protected location.
✔ Store wiping towels in a sanitizer at the proper concentration.
✔ To prevent cross-contamination and cross-contact, frequently wash hands and/or change gloves.
✔ Always wash your hands after handling food allergens such as nuts.
Taking Extra Care
A bar is full of nooks, crannies and out-in-the-open places, so bar managers and bartenders must watch carefully for unsanitary or dangerous conditions. Check out these tips from the experts, and share this important information with your entire team.
Understand allergens: Everyone on staff needs to know how to handle an allergic reaction, especially to common bar items like nuts. Plus, as Sam Stanovich, director of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ServSafe Alcohol program, points out: “If you’re dealing with a bowl of nuts, you want to wash your hands afterward. That fine dust [from the nuts] can come off and go onto something else. If you move that fine dust from serving a bowl of nuts onto a glass, you can cross-contaminate,” potentially putting allergic guests in danger.
Keep items closed: From popcorn and chips behind the bar to bottles of liqueur, make sure anything you have out is covered. With food items, there’s always the possibility guests could contaminate, say, an open container of pretzels, and with liqueurs and other spirits — not to mention sweet fruit garnishes — the sugar in the alcohol attracts fruit flies. By keeping lids on bottles or food items contained, your bar won’t attract the annoying pests.
Clean the lines: Draft beer lines need to be cleaned regularly to ensure they’re free from pathogens and also to ensure profitability, says Chuck Hamburg, a hospitality management professor at Chicago’s Roosevelt University and a partner in consulting company Creative Hospitality Associates.
(Wet) Hands off: Never lick your fingers before grabbing a napkin for a customer’s drink. “This is one of the biggest sanitation problems behind the bar, and people do it without realizing,” Hamburg points out. It may be a tough habit to break, but it’s also probably one of the most unclean practices behind the bar.