Q: What is your role in food safety at the chain?
A: I head up the food safety part of operations in the kitchens, receiving support from other departments, making sure all our kitchens are well staffed and well trained. Several years ago, David Overton, Chairman and CEO, asked me to take over this responsibility to insure we were serving the safest food possible to guests and staff. At that time food safety and sanitation at the restaurant was average relative to the rest of the industry.
Q: What have you done to change that?
A: Food safety has become a part of our culture. Employee compensation is linked to food safety. Individuals at the company who receive bonuses are rewarded or penalized based on their records of upholding company food safety standards. Those bonuses are partly determined by the scores the particular restaurant receives on safety and sanitation inspections, and any audits that are done, whether a third party audit or health department audit. The individual receives a bonus that is tied to the specific assurance they are meeting and beating expectations of those doing the audit. We’ve been doing this for several years.
Q: How does the auditing system actually work? How often do you require restaurants undergo inspections, and are the audits pre-scheduled or unannounced?
A: The Cheesecake Factory has a rigorous inspection policy that far exceeds industry standards. Everclean Services in Agoura Hills, close to our headquarters, does surprise audits of each and every restaurant every single month. All monthly reports are visible on line within 24 hours of the audit. It has capabilities with racking and stacking numbers so that we can analyze performance records for consistency. Chronic issues in a region or restaurant or violations with the health department can be identified quickly for aggressive intervention. We’re able to merge all that data together and kitchen operators can really hone in on those areas that need to be addressed.
Q: How do you build such a well-trained and knowledgeable staff?
A: At the management level, all new managers hired into the company go through a training program. Once that is complete they come to the corporate office in California for a finishing seminar called the Cheesecake Factory Institute. All new managers are certified through the ServSafe training program. All area field training managers are certified as trainers for ServeSafe. After three years you have to be re-certified in the field. Every manager in the kitchen and front of the house is ServSafe certified.
From an employee standpoint, employees undergo extensive food safety training beginning with orientation when they are first hired. Everclean Services does on site training during its audits, and above and beyond that if we need them. They are also involved in performing an intensive, multi-faceted food safety training class for key kitchen staff and managers and all employees in every new store opening. [See session outline below]. They look to be sure sanitation and food safety practices are compliant with all federal and state health codes and requirements, and that everyone is working safe, not involved in cross contamination, properly cooling, heating and storing food, and correctly receiving product.
Q: Do you get involved on the supply side?
A: Everclean has the ability to assist us with vendor site inspections. Our purchasing department does regular on site inspections of our vendors to validate product and procedures and to insure they are being audited by a third party. Our major vendor is FreshPoint, which is now owned by Sysco. We used to do 100 percent of our procurement with FreshPoint, but with our growth, we are in some markets where they don’t have an affiliation. Still, the large percentage of our marketshare is with FreshPoint.
We’re constantly updating our inspection’s physical and written requirements, insuring protocols are set for protection of final resources being delivered. We do extensive testing in our culinary center of any new produce we work with to insure product is of the highest quality standards.
Q: How do you envision your food safety strategy will evolve moving forward?
A: Food safety is extremely challenging. We try to stay involved with as many individuals knowledgeable about produce issues as possible through the PMA and other industry organizations as well as using an outside produce consultant to assist us. We try to keep an ear to the ground as much as possible with crises that come up with commodities like spinach and bean sprouts.
Next month I celebrate my 15th anniversary at The Cheesecake Factory. I remember being amazed at how busy the restaurant was becoming and the challenges of also maintaining clean and safe kitchens. Consistency and control across the chain through this expansion of new store openings has been driven by David Overton. An important component of our food safety strategy is the use of third party auditors, trainers and our outside produce consultant to assist us in assuring the produce is palatable and safe.
The following is what Kix refers to in the interview regarding Everclean training sessions for new store openings:
THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY TRAINING
— Facility walk-through
Walk-through training with key kitchen staff and managers. Review code violations, observational notations, and specific things to correct for a Health Department inspection. Notes will be taken and a copy of the notes will be left with management.
— Why we are here
Discussion introducing Everclean, the importance of food safety, and the benefits of maintaining the highest standards. Changing behaviors
— Basic Food Safety for all Employees
Food illness takes a human and financial toll. The trainer will outline simple steps to keep food safe and address what leads to illness. Main points are: How food becomes unsafe, handwashing, and serving procedures.
— Kitchen Food Safety for Staff
Kitchen staff needs extra training to keep food safe. The trainer will detail procedures and techniques essential for keeping food safe. Main points are: receiving, storage, preparation, holding, thermometer use, and cleaning. Time and Temperatures
— Exit Interview with Management
Trainer will supply detail and copies of important information. The Everclean Report form; Report “KEY”, and Everclean newsletters.
Q: How do Cheesecake Factory’s food safety training and auditing procedures compare to other restaurant chains?
A: The Cheesecake Factory is cutting edge in the importance they put in food safety. We’ve been conducting inspections for the chain nine years. It was our first big national client and now we conduct 25,000 inspections.
What makes Cheesecake Factory unique is its requirement of regular monthly audits. The industry standard is once a quarter. We go into each Cheesecake Factory restaurant every single month. These are unannounced visits.
Q: Why is the added frequency so important? Does it really make that much of a difference?
A: The restaurant industry is one where people change jobs frequently, and that mandates constantly training new staff and positive reinforcement to keep them. At Cheesecake Factory, the audit inspection scores are directly tied to employee bonuses. Food safety is part of doing business.
Q: Could such a strict, police-like environment result in a backlash scaring off employees?
A: The difference with our audit quite frankly is the proactive approach we take to food safety. We are there to teach and train. We are there to educate not regulate. Our auditors are also registered four-year-degreed food safety trainers that work with managers two or three at a time to continuously improve food safety operations.
It becomes a two hour training class every month. Each time, Everclean comes in with a different targeted item to teach based on restaurant needs. It may be a situation where concerns are as simple as calibrating a thermometer. Maybe it’s tracking cooling procedures to be sure they are correct. And of course when coming through, we make sure staff is following other food safety procedures, always washing hands and using gloves correctly, etc.
We are also involved with all new store openings. Prior to opening doors, Cheesecake Factory wants to make sure every employee in the front and back of the house is trained in food safety. We conduct two full classes with the entire staff.
A lot of restaurant chains have done a solid job of back door to customer. But the fact is the farm to fork has to be the focus. Cheesecake Factory has done a terrific job of covering the entire process. Just because the product is cooked correctly doesn’t mean it came in the door that way.
Q: You’ve touched on the issue of how produce handling at different points throughout the supply chain influences food safety. Do you have an opinion on whether it’s safer to rewash prepackaged salad once it’s opened?
A: There is much misinformation regarding best produce handling procedures. A good example relates to the debate of whether it’s safer to rewash packaged salads that have already been triple washed in the processing plant. The answer is absolutely not. There is a much greater chance of someone getting sick rewashing the product after the package has been opened.
Cheesecake Factory employees are advanced in their awareness of how to handle produce. The training process for managers and chefs is very intense. Because they buy into food safety, the employees buy in. And management buys in because the CEO buys in. This is critical. If there is no buy in from upper management, more likely than not, the food safety program will fail.
Cheesecake Factory sets the training standards to the most stringent state regulations in the country and certifies all its managers to that standard. The chain’s commitment to food safety is monumental. Our business at Everclean is growing at 20 percent to 30 percent rates now as more companies are moving from internal quality assurance teams to third party independent companies, realizing the importance of an objective set of eyes whose sole purpose is to make sure restaurants are continuing to keep food safe.
Note Jack’s comments on rewashing pre-washed produce. This really calls into question what Costco is doing with spinach as we mentioned in our piece Costco Quandary — Should Pre-Washed Spinach Be Washed Again?
His focus on food safety as being a “farm to fork” challenge is a wise reminder for the industry. It means retailers have to be looking at refrigerated case temperatures, and the whole distribution chain has to be rethinking every step with food safety in mind.
Jack also points out that internal teams are more easily influenced by other corporate priorities. An independent third party, hired with the correct motivation — to actually increase food safety, not to just get a certification — is likely to present a clearer picture of the situation.
But it is the inter-connection between rigorous audit standards and compensation that makes The Cheesecake Factory’s program an example for the trade. How many other organizations are communicating to their associates that you can ignore what we say about food safety, because your bonus is based on sales or profits?
Solving the culture and compensation connection to food safety is crucial in every sector of the trade if we are to sustain strong food safety programs.
Many thanks to those who have participated in this still ongoing series: Janet, Dan, Michael, Maurice, Rick, Kix and Jack, as well as to all the organizations they work with. Stepping up to the plate and talking about real issues in food safety in a forum such as this, where the whole industry can benefit, is a significant contribution to a better industry and a safer food supply.