Dining With Denise Neil

Restaurant initiative aims to stop health inspection violations before they happen

Trusted Table, a new voluntary program being offered by the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, would reward restaurants who take extra food safety training.
Trusted Table, a new voluntary program being offered by the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, would reward restaurants who take extra food safety training. File photo

Orange slime. Black mold. Roaches by the dozen.

Slimy soda machines. Dead flies. Outdated chili and meatballs.

Kansas diners who peruse restaurant health inspection reports posted each month by the Department of Agriculture could scare (or gross) themselves out of ever eating at a restaurant again.

But what if, wondered the leaders of the Wichita-based Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, the dining community took a different approach to food safety? What if restaurants found a proactive way to head off bad inspections, bolster their own food safety knowledge and increase customer confidence rather than figure out how to handle the fallout after being busted with headline-grabbing violations?

The result of that years-long discussion will be introduced to the public on Monday, when the restaurant association launches a new program called Trusted Table. Wichitans will begin seeing billboards around town advertising the program and stickers going up in members' windows.

The voluntary program is open to any restaurant association member that is in compliance with its most recent inspection. The restaurant's managers also must commit to having a specially trained manager on duty anytime it is open. Those who do will be able to post a Trusted Table sticker in their front window and place signs on their tables.

Designers of the program hope that it will not only educate diners about the lengths restaurants go to to ensure food safety but also encourage restaurants to go a step beyond the food safety knowledge mandated by the state.

“I would say that food safety, even though it isn’t present in people’s mindset, is the most important thing when making a decision dining out,” said Adam Mills, president and CEO of the restaurant association. “It doesn’t matter how good the food is. If you get sick, you’re never going back.”

How it works

In Kansas, the food code does not mandate food safety training, said Neeley Carlson, the restaurant association’s vice president of education and training. Instead, managers must demonstrate to inspectors a knowledge of food safety. In many other states, training is required.

To qualify for Trusted Table, participants will get formal training for their managers. The restaurants will commit to sending employees to a day-long ServSafe manager certification course, where they will be required to score at least 75 percent on a 90-question exam to pass. The course costs $105 for restaurant association members and $125 for nonmembers.

The restaurants also will commit to having at least one manager with the certification on the clock at all times. For most restaurants, that will mean keeping four or five people up to date on the certification, which is good for five years. Restaurants will be required to reapply for the Trusted Table program each year.

In Wichita, only the restaurant association is offering the ServSafe program, though several chains – like McDonald’s – have long hired people internally to offer ServSafe certification. The restaurant association so far has made its members aware of the new Trusted Table program via email, and the program already has a few Wichita participants: Freddy’ Frozen Custard, Village Inn, Deano’s, Oak & Pie, Greystone Steak & Seafood, Marriott Wichita and the new Lola’s Bistro.

The restaurant association, which will administer the program, will check each year to make sure restaurants are in compliance at inspection time and that they had a certified ServSafe manager on duty at the time of the inspection. They’ll also do occasional spot checks, Carlson said. Restaurants that aren’t in compliance could be kicked out of the program, though they could reapply after their violations are corrected.

Though anyone can take the training, only restaurants that are members of the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association will qualify for membership in the Trusted Table program. In Wichita, about 30 to 40 percent of Wichita restaurants are dues-paying members, the restaurant association said. Membership dues range from $24 to $143 a month, depending on the restaurant's annual sales.

Michael Abay, who in October opened Lola’s Bistro at 21st and K-96, said that joining the program was a no-brainer. He and his general manager had both already taken the training, and he plans to send the rest of his staff through the training when he can.

“After culinary school, it’s been a pretty big priority for me to practice proper and safe food handling and everything that goes with it,” Abay said. “My take on this is that, more than anything, it’s just peace of mind for the guest to know that everybody’s trained above the local food handler’s card.”

'Every incentive'

Carlson and Mills say that it was important for them and for the restaurant operators who helped craft the program that it remain voluntary. But, they say, they’re not sure why restaurant owners would pass on the program. Food safety is something all restaurant owners should be concerned about, and if they don’t think so, there’s a big chain that provides proof.

“Look at Chipotle,” Carlson said, referencing the sickening of hundreds of customers in nine states, who suffered from norovirus and E. coli after eating at the chain in 2015. “ Less than 1 percent of the burritos they served made individuals sick, and they lost millions of dollars. Operators have every incentive to follow the regulations and to voluntarily do training with their staff.”

Scott Redler, co-founder of the Freddy’s Frozen Custard chain, was one of several restaurant association members who served on the committee that formulated the Trusted Table program. Freddy’s has been requiring its managers to take ServSafe training for years. There’s no downside to the program, he said. And he’s proud that Kansas is a leader in putting it together.

“There’s minimal negative,” he said. "And the minimal negative is that you have to put someone through ServSafe, which is something everybody should do,” he said. “We started this years ago, and I’ve always believed in it… I think it’s better for our guests.”

For more information, visit www.krha.org/page/TrustedTable