Years ago, I was hired by an insurance company to perform a food safety audit on a very large, well-known U.S. casino.
I immediately fell in love with the casino environment, enthralled by the back of the house. I was fascinated by the maze of hallways “behind the scenes” that connected various kitchens. Casinos are complex: meals are prepared in numerous kitchens and transported to a multitude of spaces in the facility, appearing on buffets, in restaurants and various other areas.
Food is delivered to various spaces within the casino from a central warehouse—sometimes stored in a central area in the casino before being dispersed to the different kitchens to be prepped. Chefs and their teams prepare every type of dish, from basic pasta to complicated dishes such as turducken. They manage dozens of freezers, refrigerators, coolers, ovens, warmers, chillers, etc. And thousands of people work together throughout the building to prepare and serve countless meals every day. It’s an exciting, high-energy, fast-paced environment.
All this hustle and bustle gives ample opportunity for mistakes to be made in these hectic commercial kitchens. Preparing and serving safe food must be a priority, and this can become more challenging if the kitchen teams don’t have proper equipment, if they don’t follow food safety protocols, and/or if they’re working in a poorly designed space.
THE BIG PICTURE
There are a plethora of macro issues to look at when contemplating casino kitchens. For example, I’ve been in many casino kitchens where the equipment simply wasn’t designed to keep up with the heavy flow of business. Often, this equipment is running 24/7, 365 days a year. For example, not all cold holding units are equipped to maintain this non-stop pace long term. They begin to build up ice, eventually start “freezing-up,” and then won’t maintain proper food temperatures, which violates food safety codes.
Kitchens must be well-ventilated, but this is not always the case in casino kitchens. Without proper ventilation, mold will begin to develop in vents, on walls, etc. Busy kitchens produce more than their fair share of moisture. Ceiling vents must be secure but should still be easy to remove and clean.
Flooring must be substantial enough to withstand heavy equipment, so the tile doesn’t crack and break under the weight. This equipment is moved daily, has sharp corners and often gets bumped into the baseboards. Cracked tiles (and grout) can attract insects, bacteria growth and other unsanitary issues. Be sure that all lines and hoses can be accessed for thorough cleaning.
Kitchens should be light and bright, so dirt is easy to spot and can be readily cleaned. Walls should be a light color with as few seams as possible, making them easier to clean. Chips, cracks, breaks and missing tiles can lead to sanitation issues. All materials must be checked for durability.
There are amazing new products that have zero water absorption and are manufactured in large formats. They can be utilized for floors, walls and countertops—and are attractive. Large formats mean less grout to crack and break, therefore reducing the risk of contamination.
Be certain that the hand sinks are in the most functional locations. When performing unannounced food safety inspections, I’ve observed executive chefs wearing multiple pairs of single use gloves. When questioned, these chefs complained that the hand sinks were too far away to go wash their hands every time it was necessary. Skipping handwashing is totally inexcusable. It’s critical for kitchens to have a hand sink behind the line. And single use gloves should be hung right beside the sink to minimize the risk of contamination. Seemingly “small” details make a huge difference in minimizing food safety risks.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), contaminated utensils and equipment are a top risk factor for foodborne illness outbreaks. If equipment is difficult to clean, it’s more likely not to be cleaned properly (if at all). Meat slicers and soft-serve ice cream machines are often difficult to clean, and some brands are better than others. There are soft serve machines that have literally hundreds of pieces that need to be washed, rinsed and sanitized regularly, which means your staff must be willing to commit several hours of labor to this task.
ATTENTION TO DETAILS
When fine-tuning the planning, designing and building of a food service kitchen, remember to:
- Plan the flow. The flow of your kitchen should make sense for efficiency and food safety. This will save time, money, and reduce risk. For instance, when servers take food to guests, they should never have to walk through the dirty dish area, which increases the food safety risk.
- Ensure that your hot water tanks hold a sufficient amount of hot water. If they don’t hold enough hot water to get you through your busiest rush period of washing and sanitizing dishes, either get a booster or a larger hot water tank.
- Purchase equipment that’s easy to clean, with minimal nooks and crannies.
- Consider even the smallest details—like the amount of tile grout you use. The less tile grout, the less risk for chipping. Chipping, crack and holes in walls and floors equals bacteria growth. Use a non-porous material that doesn’t allow bacteria to grow.
- Ensure that your floors have drains so they can be deep cleaned regularly.
- Make certain areas that are impossible to reach for cleaning are sealed tightly. It is impossible for anyone to clean a quarter-inch gap between a wall and a counter space that the contractor neglected to close. This will eventually become an insect or rodent haven—obviously a food safety hazard.
- Consider the placement of sinks. Kitchen sinks must never be in an area where there’s potential for contaminated water to splash on consumables, clean dishes or anything else it could contaminate. In tight areas, a barrier should be installed between the sink and prep area.
- Install multiple sinks for washing dishes, produce, hands, etc.
- Minimize the distance product must travel from storage to its final destination to reduce the risk of temperature abuse and cross-contamination issues.
- Designate certain equipment and prep space for allergen-free/gluten- free cooking to safely accommodate your guests with food allergies and intolerances. This should include an allergy-friendly fryer, which isn’t used for any common allergens (e.g., shellfish, nuts, breaded items, etc.)
- Utilize allergy kits with color-coded chopping boards and pans and utensils, which are kept clean, covered and stored away from flours, nuts and other potential allergens. Purple is widely used and recognized to designate allergy-friendly equipment.
- Wash and sanitize allergy equipment (and surfaces) between each use.
- Ensure that your ventilation systems don’t spread flour dust, nut particles or other allergens throughout the facility, which could contaminate virtually everything.
While it’s critical, of course, to have a competent design and construction team for your project, don’t overlook the importance of having a food safety expert consult on everything from concept to implementation. Food safety experts offer a valuable perspective and can advise on all matters from big (how kitchen design impacts food safety, reduces foodborne illness risks and potential cross-contact issues) to small (the easiest gaskets to clean and keep sanitary.) In addition, their knowledge will be invaluable when it comes to the flow of food, up-to-date food code rules and regulations, etc., all of which should be considered when designing a kitchen.
By working collaboratively, your design, construction and food safety expert can maximize your future successes and minimize food safety risks.
When designing a commercial kitchen, many people consider how the space will look, when they should be primarily concerned with how it will function. The design should maximize efficiency and productivity, but it also must promote proper food safety protocols.