Many foodservice operations have some form of self-service, such as the ability to order from a kiosk or fill a cup with soda or another beverage from a drink dispenser.
However, when it comes to self-service operations that offer buffets and salad bars, there are certain precautions you must take to keep your customers safe.
This article explains everything you need to know about food safety for self-service dining.
Food safety for self-service dining
A self-service restaurant is where the customer serves themselves food rather than being served by a food handler.
Customers or guests may also serve themselves at catered events.
Although the customer serves themselves, your job to keep them safe from foodborne illnesses isn’t over.
Preparing food for a buffet line or salad bar is no different than food you would prepare for other foodservice styles — you must still follow basic food safety principles.
If you prepared food for later service, this also means that you follow safe reheating guidelines.
Finally, make sure your hot- and cold-holding equipment is turned on and working properly.
Now is also a good time to verify that you have a way to notify customers — usually with a posted sign — that they must use clean plates when they return for seconds to reduce the risk of cross-contamination — they cannot reuse them (1).
Along with a sneeze guard in place to protect food from saliva and other contaminants, it’s also good to have signs that promote safe self-service practices among your customers, like no barehand contact, use utensils, and cover coughs and sneezes to decrease the risk of contamination.
Cover or wrap food properly when bringing it from the kitchen to the self-service areas.
At least one food worker who has been trained in keeping self-service areas safe must continuously monitor these areas.
You must monitor the temperature of the food at least every four hours to ensure it maintains a safe temperature.
While not required, measuring the temperature more often — such as every two hours — allows you to recondition the food if it’s in the temperature danger zone to make it safe again.
Measure the temperature using a calibrated food thermometer — you can’t use the temperature displayed on the hot- or cold-holding equipment — and sanitize the stem between each food.
Make sure you have appropriate serving utensils like tongs, scoops, or ladles for each food item to reduce the likelihood of food tasting or use of fingers or a nearby utensil to serve the food.
You can store the serving utensils in the food containers, but monitor the container so the handles are left out of the food.
Because customers can’t reuse them, keep plates and utensils at self-service areas well-stocked.
Clean up spills as they happen and keep the counters and areas around the food clean.
Replace entire containers of food when they are low — never mix old with new.
If you observe or suspect that a food item has been contaminated, throw it out and replace it in a cleaned and sanitized container.
Any leftover food after service is generally tossed, even if it was held at safe temperatures with no signs of contamination.
However, there may be certain food items that you want to save.
In this case, use the two-stage cooling method to safely cool hot-held foods.
In the first stage, cool foods from 135ºF (57ºC) — the minimum temperature at which foods must be hot held — to 70ºF (21ºC) within two hours.
Then, cool from 70ºF (21ºC) to 41ºF (5ºC) within four hours to complete the second stage.
Don’t forget to label and date the food with when it must be served or tossed.
You can safely store time-temperature control for safety (TCS) foods for up to seven days, with the day you prepared the food counting as day one.
For multi-ingredient dishes, mark the date of the earliest- or first-prepared ingredient.
Then, store leftovers on the top shelf to avoid contamination from other foods.
Don’t forget to clean and sanitize the self-service area as well as any dirty dishes and utensils.
Follow basic food safety principles when preparing and cooking food for self-service areas. At least one food worker must continuously monitor self-service areas to keep food and customers safe. If you plan to keep any leftovers, handle and store them safely.
The bottom line
Following basic food safety principles is crucial in self-service restaurants that offer buffets and salad bars.
Prepare food safely and cook it to its minimum internal temperature.
At least one food worker must continuously monitor self-service areas to ensure the food maintains safe temperatures and to protect it from contamination.
While usually tossed, handle and store leftovers safely.
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