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The Restaurant Industry’s Dirty Little Secret

Busy Kitchen

The dirty little secret in the restaurant industry is that we know a lot of our restaurant safety-documentation is not completed accurately.

Every day in restaurants across the country, restaurant managers are supposed to complete temperature logs, line checks, and other safety checks to ensure that they are operating safely. A lot of those logs are pencil-whipped, or to state it more bluntly they are lied on.

The reasons for the lies are numerous:  ran out of time, who cares no one ever looks at them, I know we are safe, we’ve never gotten anyone sick, etc.. This behavior is so commonplace in the industry’s culture that it is almost a joke.

I was recently in a meeting with some restaurant executives, and we were discussing their line checks, their checks included food temps and sanitation items. The company’s policy was restaurant managers would complete two line checks a day, one before each meal period.  Area managers would review the line checks once a quarter when they performed their site inspections. I asked these executives, are these checks getting done twice a day? When your area manager is going through their site inspection are they seeing 180 of these a quarter?  Everyone in the room chuckled, “yes, they all get done accurately every shift”  was the ha ha response.

Daily checklists not being completed or being completed inaccurately seems to be a common issue no matter how large or small the restaurant system is.  We recently talked with a chef of a restaurant who was working there six days a week, and she didn’t feel like she knew if the checks were getting done accurately and she was only managing that location.  That speaks to how hard it is to manage in restaurants, you can’t be everywhere all the time.  We spoke with a multi-unit franchisee who stated that he has walked into his restaurants and looked at the temp logs on the wall and knew they had been pencil whipped.

We recently conducted a survey of over 100 restaurant managers and owners from around the world. Here are the results:

  • 100% of respondents believed that conducting checklists could help them run safer and more profitable restaurants
  • 42% of respondents conducted daily line checks
  • 45% of respondents conducted daily temp logs
  • 88% conducted checklists on paper

This final stat is the kicker:

  • 94% of respondents believed that their checklists were not being filled out accurately.

Here is the light at the end of the tunnel.  We just did a deep dive with one of our clients who has used the OpsAnalitica platform for 20 months. They were able to cut critical food safety violations by 55% when they did their daily checklists.  How; because they saw stuff that was wrong every shift and they fixed it. When you actually do your checklists, they do work and you run safer and better operations.

The reason pencil whipping is so rampant in the industry is because 99% of the time it doesn’t matter.  It is a hard truth to hear, but it is true.  If it mattered, then we as an industry would have corrected this issue by now.

To fully understand pencil whipping we have to break down the safety checklist into it’s two parts:  checking to ensure items are safe and documenting the items safety status.

When you pencil whip a checklist or log you are committing two sets of lies:

  1. You are stating that you checked the safety of the items on the checklist.
  2. You are falsifying a safety document.

The reason that you are being asked to check the safety of these items is because they have been identified as high-risk factors that could contribute to getting someone sick or even potentially killing them.  If you check the item and catch a problem, then you have an opportunity to fix that problem before it affects your guests.  That is why we do the checks.

When you don’t check the safety of high-risk items or of your sanitation procedures, you are rolling the dice with other people’s lives and it is no different than driving a car drunk or shooting a gun into a crowd.  It can have the same exact consequences.  I know that sounds dramatic but ask the families of those people who died from eating a Blue Bell ice cream last summer.

The second offense is just dumb; you should never put your name or complete any official document with knowingly false information on it.  This goes back to that early statement that 99% of the time this won’t come back to haunt you until the day it does, and then you will regret that decision.

If your restaurant get’s someone sick, look at Chipotle they just had their safety documentation from every unit subpoenaed, are you going to want to stand by all of the false documents.  The lawyers and investigators are going to use that documentation to show your wanton disregard for your safety procedures.  If you are a manager or an owner, take this one step further; do you think your employees would lie for you on the stand in that scenario?  My guess is that when asked they are going to tell the truth.

Here is something that most restaurant owners don’t know about, most restaurant liability and food borne illness insurance policies have writers in them that release the insurance company from responsibility if the restaurant is acting unsafely.  Here are some actual writers that we pulled from a policy:

  • 3.13  Any Food Borne Illness that occurs after the Insured has knowledge of a defect or deviation in the production, preparation or manufacture of the Insured Product(s), or circumstance(s) which have or are likely to result in such deviation or defect, and fails to take corrective action.
  • 3.19  Any dishonest, willful, wanton, fraudulent, criminal or malicious act, error of omission by the Insured(s).  This is your Pencil Whipping Clause!!!!
  • 3.21  Any Food Borne Illness that occurs where the Insured is or ought to be aware that the Insured is in violation of the corporate mandated food handling or food procurement procedures and has not taken action to rectify the violation.

We have all heard about insurance companies doing whatever it takes not to pay out claims are you willing to risk that consequence on pencil whippers.

What do you do?  

I hope that we all have come to the conclusion that completing checklists accurately makes sense because we are acting responsibly as operators and we are looking out for the best interests of our customers and brands.  If you are going to incur the costs of creating and mandating that checklists get completed, then you have to hold manager’s accountable for getting them completed on-time and accurately.  That means that every shift that safety and quality checklists are completed before we start serving guests and that the managers take the time to check each item and record the items safety status on the checklist.  That is the only way that you can generate an ROI from your checklists and ensure safe operations.

There are a ton of ways to do this.  If you are going to stick with paper checklists, then you can have the person time date stamp when they started and ended each checklist.  If you are a multi-unit operator, you can have your restaurant manager’s fax in their checklists to corporate each day or scan and email them.  The reason most people don’t do this is because it is a giant waste of time and it pushes the burden of managing all of this paper to different people in the business.

With today’s technology, the easiest way to manage your checklists is to use a checklist system app.  These are the features you should be looking for in a checklist app:

  • Works on different devices: phones and tablets
  • Works on different operating systems, technology moves to fast and you don’t want to be stuck on an obsolete platform
  • Doesn’t require wifi to complete a checklist – wifi isn’t always great in kitchens and can stop you from inspecting outside
  • Supports different question types – not just True False – you need to be able to capture different types of answers and report off of them
  • The system should be able to reference additional help and training documentation so inspectors can understand the why behind the question and the answer scale
  • Is quick – the quicker it is to complete a checklist the greater the chance it will be completed every shift accurately
  • Make sure you can build custom reports so you can get the data you are collecting in a format that works for your organization
  • The system should hold managers responsible and track what is happening when they complete an inspection
  • Should be easy to use and train on so that checklists are completed consistently across the organization even as you experience turnover
  • Should be easy to administrate or even better the provider should offer a full-service plan so that you can get up and running quickly and stay up and running over time – remember employee turnover

Pencil whipping has been happening in our industry for years, but it needs to come to a stop.  There is a benefit to completing these safety and operational checklists every shift.  Not only at the restaurant level to ensure that you are safe and ready for service but also at the corporate level where operations data can be collected and used to assist the restaurants.  Keeping people safe is a moral and brand imperative and the best way to do that is through solid operations that are driven by checklists.

If you aren’t using daily checklists to manage your operations, or you are using paper, there is a better way.  I invite you to click here to learn more about the OpsAnalitica Platform.  We can help you digitize your checklists and get you up and running doing your checklists a better way today.  We have a managed service offering that takes all of the burdens of setting up and managing your checklist program off of your shoulders and puts it on ours, we can have you up and running in as little as a day.  If you are a DIY type of person we have a plan that fits your needs.  The first step is jumping on a quick call and learning more about how we can help you.  Click on the learn more button at the top right of your screen.

 

Written by

I've been in the restaurant industry for most of my adult life. I have a BSBA from University of Denver Hotel Restaurant school and an MBA from the same. When I wasn't working in restaurants I was either doing stand-up comedy, for 10 years, or large enterprise software consulting. I'm currently the Managing Director of OpsAnalitica and our Inspector platform was originally conceived when I worked for one of the largest sandwich franchisors in the country. You can reach out to me through LinkedIn.

One Comment Published

[…] Restaurant companies spend millions of dollars and untold hours developing, training and implementing procedures so that the restaurant store teams know exactly what they need to do at every part of the day. So they can make sure the restaurants are ready for guests and that the food is prepared correctly and it is safe and delicious. The problem has always been, that no one at the restaurants uses the checklists or follow the systems as they are designed. See our blog on the Industry’s Dirty Little Secret. […]