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COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, has radically altered life around the world. Few industries have been affected as acutely as the foodservice industry. As more cities order restaurants and bars to close, and as more people either work from home or have been ordered to shelter in place, independents and chains alike are laying off employees and working on other means of providing meals to customers. Take-out and delivery used to be options for patrons; now they are the only choice.

On-premise operators are also being affected, but in different ways. Hospitals still must feed patients, nursing homes and senior living complexes still must feed residents, schools and colleges find themselves still needed to provide some foodservice options for students even though campuses across the country have stopped holding in-person classes. Many businesses considered “non-essential” have closed temporarily, but for companies that must remain open, providing meals for employees is still sometimes necessary.

The challenges for these operators, particularly in healthcare, are how to provide meals safely, how to continue services with fewer staff, and how to keep their employees safe while working to provide a valuable service.

Members of IFMA’s five operator councils—K-12 schools, colleges and universities, healthcare, B&I and small and mid-size chains—have weighed in on three questions that they have needed to answer to their constituencies. But even as they have shared their stories, they caution that the crisis remains fluid. Mark Freeman, chair of the B&I Operator Council, said: “This thing is changing so fast that it’s hard to make decisions that stick for more than 24 hours.” As a result, information and data will need to be updated frequently over the next few weeks and months.

How to protect the health and safety of patients, students, employees, guests and staff?

  1. In the cafeterias of Florida Blue, in Jacksonville, all self-service was eliminated. Cleaning protocols were made much more stringent, with many surfaces and touchpoints such as door handles being wiped down with a hospital-grade disinfectant every 15 minutes.
  2. At NVIDIA in Chicago, open cafes are only providing packaged meals for takeout.
  3. At Ford Motor Co. in Michigan, because of the state’s mandate of social distancing and no gatherings of more than 5 people, dining rooms were closed.
  4. At George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., all retail operations were shut down.
  5. At Virginia Tech University, in Blacksburg, the recommendation was made that the dining halls go into “cruise ship” mode, stationing people outside the entrances providing hand sanitizer to every customer before they enter. However, this idea was nixed by Director Ted Faulkner, who said,” I would need 72 gallons of hand sanitizer a day just to do that. I can’t find that amount.”
  6. At Sonoma State University in California, where a Starbucks was kept open, dining services banned customers from using reusable mugs, but continued to give them the discount just as if they were able to use them.
  7. The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus went to all disposable tableware, both to reduce the risk of infection and to be prepared in case there aren’t enough employees on hand to wash dishes.
  8. When Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center had its orders of sani-wipes cut from 10 cases to 2, Nutrition Services Director Veronica McLymont spoke with the hospital’s purchasing department, which reached out to its GPO and prime vendors to make sure that the 10-case orders were restored.
  9. When St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis was warned that there was a shortage of sani-wipes on the market, Nutrition Services Director David Reeves obtained a peroxide-based cleaner from Ecolab that is designed to kill the norovirus. “So we’re 99% sure it will kill [coronavirus],” said Reeves. However, it was pointed out that this cleaner works well on hard surfaces but not as well on food preparation surfaces.
  10. Many retirement communities have closed their dining rooms and retail operations and switched to 100% room service. At Legacy Retirement Homes in Lincoln, Neb., this has actually led to an increase in staff, as the complex has hired people to deliver meals to residents in 685 apartments.
  11. Many hospitals and other healthcare facilities dramatically reduced the number of entrances in order to better screen employees and guests. Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., has set up screening and treatment tents outside of its entrances. Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis has closed all but 2 of its 12 entrances, and everyone entering those doors is being screened. St. Clare’s Denville Hospital in New Jersey funnels staff through one entrance, where a nurse is stationed to temperature-screen them. Legacy Retirement Communities has set up a screening station for all employees. At the station, temperatures are taken and recorded, and all employees must fill out a self-health questionnaire.
  12. St. Jude Hospital set up sleeping quarters for staff in order to isolate them as much as possible from the community at large.
  13. Shake Shack, which has switched to a to-go model at all company-owned stores, communicates with its suppliers to make sure they are taking appropriate precautions, such as checking drivers daily and giving them the ability to call off if they are sick. Its QA department has drawn up specific protocols for what to do if a team member tests positive.

How to provide meals given challenges with staffing and product availability/supply chain?

  1. Veronica McLymont, from Memorial Sloan Kettering noted that because gatherings such as catered functions have been canceled, she can make use of catering staff in other areas such as patient feeding.
  2. UNC Medical Center in Raleigh, N.C., has reallocated 150 employees from its wellness centers to foodservice, where they are being cross-trained to work in that department.
  3. Hennepin Healthcare reworked its menu program to favor items that can be prepared even when staffing levels are very low. Food & Nutrition is also cross-training employees from its retail operations to be able to work in the main kitchen.
  4. Jude Hospital’s foodservice switched to a minimal staffing plan in which half of the staff work one week, and the other half work the next week. The goal is to keep employees separated as much as possible so that there is a portion of staff not in quarantine should a staff member test contract the virus.
  5. Eskenazi Health, in Indianapolis, has converted one of its operations to produce family-size meals to go for essential staff who don’t have time for or want to avoid grocery shopping.
  6. Despite most school districts across the country being closed, nutrition services for those districts still are trying to provide meals, especially for students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Cincinnati Schools is providing breakfast and lunch to go three days a week at 24 sites, with a 6% participation rate. Director Jessica Shelly says the program is not being run five days a week in order to minimize staff contact with the public. Montague Area Public Schools in Michigan has opened four emergency sites and two mobile sites two days a week. Each day, customers will receive three to four days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches. Houston Independent School District is distributing food at 36 schools throughout the district.

How to best communicate with patients/students/guests, staff, administration, community and other vested constituencies about what is being done for them?

  1. Many on-premise foodservice programs are continuing to pay staff, for at least a few weeks, to protect them financially. The World Bank and LinkedIn are two companies that are paying vendor staff for at least two weeks. Cincinnati and Montague Area, Michigan, schools are continuing to pay their foodservice workers, whether or not they work their full complement of hours. In addition, Cincinnati schools is paying managers in packing and distribution a $50 per day stipend in addition to their regular pay.
  2. JLL, a real state management firm, communicates with its foodservice suppliers by posting, internally, links to several websites that provide the best and up-to-date information regarding the crisis. Nathan Phillips, who oversees foodservice, said that as he learns best practices from colleagues, he is posting that information on internal websites.
  3. At Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, all information that is valuable to foodservice employees is being shared daily in pre-shift meetings. Staff are notified each time a new COVID-19 patient is admitted.
  4. Clare’s Denville Hospital has set up a command center, similar to what is done in a natural disaster, to a focal point for all communications so that rumors and false information is weeded out.
  5. The National Restaurant Association has made available important information to all restaurant operators, whether or not they are NRA members. Some information is found on the NRA website, restaurant.org, and the association will also assign a staff member to operators to answer their questions and guide them through things as how to design effective marketing and PR materials and how to deal with supply and food safety issues.

For more information and to stay up-to-date on the latest news, visit the IFMA Operator Council website. We are committed to providing you with the critical information you need to navigate these unprecedented times.