Maintaining a buffet is more of a choreographed dance than anything. Restaurant owners juggle around all of the different types of food so they avoid cross-contamination, foodborne illness and other problems. It's important not to miss a step because the safety of your guests depends on it. Here's what you need to know on the best practices for buffet-style meals.
It all starts with initial preparation, according to the National Sanitation Foundation. When setting up a buffet, follow the same steps you'd take to prepare any other meal. Start out with the essentials – hand washing and clean plates. These little acts can prevent a lot of germs from spreading around. It's especially important when preparing food because as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained, certain germs can multiple when they come in contact with food and drink. Lather your hands with soap and rinse with water. Once that's all set, keep in mind other rules of the kitchen, like avoid using any dishes that contain raw poultry until they've gone through the dishwasher. Also, pay special attention to how the meats are cooked.
Cook meats thoroughly
The minimal temperatures for beef, pork and poultry are 145, 145 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. In addition to ample time in the oven, these meats need to have a rest time, which the NSF defined as the period in which food stands without any carving or eating. Both beef and pork require a three-minute wait time and there isn't one for poultry.
Once it hits the buffet
Once the meats are prepared, keep track of how long they're sitting on the table. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration explained that the maximum amount of time a plate of food should remain on the buffet is two hours for items that are at room temperature and one hour if the temperature is about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep a plate of food hot by using a warming plate or a chauffeur. Keep any cold items, like shrimp cocktail, in the fridge until it's time to serve them and then put them on ice while they're on the buffet table.
How to replenish the food
As guests make the rounds and food starts to run low, add in an entire new tray of the item. Don't mix food items that have been sitting out with new dishes because, as the FDA pointed out, bacteria can spread from person-to-person as the guests make their way through the buffet. Eliminate the risk of germs circulating throughout the restaurant by simply taking away a tray of food that's nearly empty. It's better to make a guest happy by giving him or her a new individual portion of something that he or she has requested rather than serving up a questionable leftover.
Can guests take food home?
Restaurants should make it a general rule to toss out any food that's been sitting out at room temperature for more than two hours, suggested the NSF. This means the cheese and cracker platter that's been sitting out isn't up for grabs if someone wants to take it home. If guests will want to take home some leftovers, it should be determined from the start of the meal, otherwise deny the request. When it comes to food safety practices, it's better to not take any risks.
If your establishment has a policy on taking food home from the buffet, be sure that it's standardized for every guest so some don't feel like they're treated differently than others. Explain to people that it's for the sake of safety and don't waiver if they start to get upset.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that about 1 in 6 Americans – 48 million people – get sick from foodborne illness annually. Of those cases, at least 128,000 people have to visit the hospital and 3,000 of them die from it. It's not worth running the risk at your establishment.
Whenever you're unsure if something is good to serve or not, it's probably not. Be cognizant and careful when offering a buffet-style dining option so that guests can enjoy food that's delicious and safe.
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