Feature Article - April 2004
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Concession Obsession

Learn to maximize your menu, save money and make even more

By Elisa Kronish

Safety First

Did you know that 6,000 people die of food poisoning a year, 250,000 people get sick from food poisoning and 500,000 get sick from food poisoning but think it's something else?

Not to scare you or anything. Well, actually, maybe just a little. After all, it is a matter of life and death. The positive spin?

"It's preventable," says Michael Sheahan, president of Sheahan Consulting based in Oakley, Calif. Although consumers are more aware these days of food-related bacteria such as e.coli and lysteria, it doesn't mean the causes have been eliminated.

"It generally takes a food safety crisis for people to look more closely at their food safety," Sheahan says. "Protect yourself before your name ends up on Dateline."

Gathered here are some of Sheahan's best food safety advice to help you stay out trouble. It's up to you to develop the guidelines, implement them, and monitor and take responsibility for your employees' actions toward achieving common safety goals.

1. Your weakest link: "In a perfect world, all my employees would be junior microbiologists," Sheahan jokes. Seeing as that's not very likely, he says facility managers need to spend time explaining what's tolerable and what's not. While he understands that young, temporary staff are often a crucial part of your operation, he cautions, "A lot of times, their level of concern as to whether, say, the mayo has been left out for four hours, is not really very high."

Sheahan suggests designating a year-round employee as concession manager and providing food-handling training. Then, set up standards and enforce them.

"If somebody does something stupid like leaving a product out on the counter and then serving it, I'd fire them," Sheahan states. "If they realize what they did and throw it away, I'd give them a bonus."

2. Get a cooking clue: "Learn the times and temperature issues that affect the food you're serving and stick to it," Sheahan says simply. On that same issue, make sure cooked-meat utensils are kept completely separate from raw-meat utensils.

"I'll see places take a raw piece of chicken with a pair of tongs and then use the same piece of equipment to pick up a cooked hamburger," he says. "The raw chicken has bacteria on it that has now been transferred to the hamburger."

3. Don't spoil the fun: When refilling containers for condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise, Sheahan stresses the importance of rinsing out the container completely rather than pouring more product on top of old.

"If there are two inches of mayonnaise left, bacteria start to grow," he says. "You pour more mayo on top of that, and the bacteria on the bottom have now contaminated that whole container."

In fact, Sheahan recommends avoiding mayonnaise altogether.

"And no salad dressings," he says. He would also nix red meat but gives the thumbs-up to rotisserie hot dogs. "The downside is they're not cleaned well, but the temperature is right."

4. Clean up your act: "A lot of food safety issues are common sense," Sheahan points out. When he's hired to consult, he gives the staff a telling test. "We take a piece of meat, lay it on the tabletop and ask the people, 'Would you serve it?' and they say 'Yes.' But when we ask them to take a bite out of it, they say, "No, I don't want that. It's been sitting on the table.'"

A common practice Sheahan sees is placing utensils in hot water between uses.

"This is acceptable if the water is changed periodically and kept at 180 degrees," Sheahan explains. If this isn't happening, then you're only going through the motions. Also, Sheahan warns, don't expect your cook to check the water.

"They have too much to do already," he says. This can be one of the responsibilities of the concession manager. Make sure you and your staff are mindful of your actions.

"You'd be amazed at what we find," Sheahan says. "Think about what you're doing, where stuff is sitting. Take the extra time to clean the counter."