How to pass restaurant inspections


Every eating establishment in America is subject to unscheduled inspections from trained public health officials. People tend to clean up when they realize that “big brother”, the health inspector, is looking. A poor inspection could mean thousands in lost sales.

The importance of food safety is well understood by corporate executives. Because they are able to afford the management and money necessary to make food safety a priority, corporate executives tend to see it as protecting their brands. While smaller companies understand its importance, they are often limited in manpower and have less financial resources which can lead to poor food safety decisions. These entrepreneurs are often only interested in food safety when a negative event occurs, such as a poor inspection grade.

These are the entrepreneurs whose actions and attitudes I wish to change. They will be a problem if they do not show genuine concern for food safety or sanitation. If employees don’t receive regular self-inspection training, they are inviting the health department into their business to take steps to protect it.

1) How employees can prepare for inspections by health departments through training and self examinations

2) What inspectors are looking at during a health inspection.

3) How to respond to a poor rating in the health inspection grading system

One note about this article. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which issues the FDA Food Code, is a science-based program that makes recommendations for food safety regulations. The FDA recommends that counties, states, and cities adopt the FDA Food Code. However, they cannot make them do so. Many local health departments can also create their own regulations. Although there is considerable overlap in the regulations provided by different health departments, they also have minor differences. While the specifics of this article might not be applicable to every city or town, they should be easy to modify for their own purposes.

Compensation: a Key to Food Safety Effectively

Before we get into this topic, I’d like to tell you that the best way to communicate to employees that food safety matters is to make it part of their compensation.

Restaurants have the option to give food safety bonuses. The amount of food safety bonuses will depend on how well they do in inspections by health departments or inspections by third-party auditors/consultants. Management will not be granted a bonus if they do not maintain a top score.

It is the best way to demonstrate to employees that food safety and quality are important parts of their jobs is to affect their compensation.

Restaurants today have financial goals. Incentives bonuses are given to front- and back-of-house managers if they meet these goals. This system can be easily integrated with food safety, although I haven’t heard of anyone doing this. It would also be smart to include non-management employees in a bonus structure that is tied to food safety.

Here are some things to keep in mind when training your staff

Before we get to the factors, I want you to know that the worst mistake I see is when small operators start to train their employees. It is common for small operators to fail to check their employees’ food safety knowledge before they begin training them. It is difficult to unlearn bad food safety habits so it is best that you hire those who are already doing the right thing.

Basic food safety knowledge It is important for managers and chefs to understand the low level of training required to ensure food safety in restaurants. This training could be the first time that your staff is taught how to handle food safely.

Schools are cutting back on science, math, and home economics classes. Basic food-handling techniques are often taught at home. Note that first-time job seekers are often very young and in high school. It is the result that restaurant managers and chefs are responsible for teaching food safety. ServSafe has been taught in more culinary schools in recent years than ever before.

Employees should receive immediate training Food safety procedures and sanitation operating procedures must be implemented as soon as they are hired. It is much easier to teach staff procedures right from the beginning. Some employees may feel that the new task they are being asked to do is not part their job, because it was not discussed at hire.

Part-time workers Since practice makes perfect it can take longer for these workers become proficient in their position. These issues can be addressed by managers with ongoing training.

Workers from abroad — Language and literacy skills in English may be a problem. Additionally, not all countries adhere to the same standards of food safety as the United States. Ask potential employees about these issues during interviews.

Employee turnover Many reasons why the restaurant industry experiences high levels of turnover include: young employees view a position in a restaurant as an entry-level job; starting pay is low for unskilled employees, and certain jobs (such as building maintenance or dishwashing) are not highly desirable. Employees move on to better jobs, so you need to be ready to train new staff members.

The constant training requirement is costly. Many companies will only train the first or the second generation of employees. Employee turnover can cause a decrease in commitment. It is important to remember that if a foodborne disease outbreak occurs and can be traced back to the establishment, the financial loss and negative press could be significant compared to the time and effort required for staff training and developing.

Specifying responsibilities Create a job description outlining the responsibilities of your employees in food safety. They will sign a document declaring that they have fully understood what is expected of them.


This certification is only the beginning. These skills are put into practice through constant self-inspection.

Self-inspection forms are available on most websites of health departments. If the website of your local health department doesn’t have these forms, you can refer to the self inspection forms available from the nearby health department. There is no one right to use these forms. Some restaurants even create their own.

It would take too much space to reprint the two-and a half page self-inspection forms here. But, to give an idea of what such form contents include, most of the content covered earlier by the professional certificates are related to inspections (both health department inspections and self-inspection). A section titled “What Health Inspectors are looking for” contains lists of items that should all be available for inspection.

Inspections Health Department

Most restaurant owners view the visit of the health inspector as an interruption to their day and not as an opportunity to learn. Many operators actually hate the department. This is not the right attitude to have, but it does explain why some restaurants fear health inspections. You don’t need to be afraid of inspections if you have prepared staff who are knowledgeable and have a history with routine self-inspection.


Although there are no set rules regarding how often a restaurant is inspected, these observations are based on my work in food safety in California, New York, Maryland, Washington, DC, and other states.

  • The more complex an operation, such as large facilities with multiple foods and multiple processes, like cooking, reheating or making sushi, the more often that the health department visits (sometimes two to three times per calendar year).
  • The health department might visit a coffee shop, small retail business, or small bakery without major protein food preparation only once per year.
  • If you are consistently receiving B-level and C-level inspection scores, then you can expect to have your home inspected up to 4 times per year.

A complaint about a restaurant’s food safety or poor operating procedures is grounds for the health department to inspect it. All complaints must be investigated and reported to the health department.

Your inspector

You are likely to be assigned an inspector to your area. This can be beneficial in that you are able to get used to the inspector’s style and look for common issues. But if you don’t get along with them, it could become a curse.

You should remember that in areas with higher populations and more inspectors, your inspector’s attitude could be impacting the fairness of the grading process. In these cases, it is best to call your local Health Department and request another inspector. According to my experience, most times the health department will accept your request. The request would be made after the inspection has been completed. If you are ready to pay for the second visit, (I’ve seen fees in the $300-500 range). The original inspection remains valid in these cases. However, the new inspector might arrive within days to issue a revised inspection report.


Your inspection results will be combined into a single grade. Health department grading systems may vary from one jurisdiction. These systems can take the form of letter grades (or a point system), or a pass/fail and can sometimes be accompanied with fines. This will help you determine how your restaurant performs during an inspection.

How to deal with a low grade

It shouldn’t be surprising that the inspector grade would have been given to a manager who accompanied the inspector on the visit. What should you do if you are given a lower rating than you expected?

Take the inspection findings seriously. Train everyone involved in the inspection and ensure that repairs and maintenance are done for the long term. This process begins with a prioritized checklist. Since repair and maintenance takes time and costs money, it is best not to tackle the large issues like missing tiles or grout, dirty fan guards and torn gaskets.

An inspection may reveal enough violations to cause a restaurant to lose its top rating. The owner may request a reinspection. A re-inspection fee is typically in the “hundreds” range. In the interim, the owner may offer a “Grade Pending” option, which allows you to rectify the violations within a certain time frame before the inspection is re-inspected and your final inspection grade displayed. This is an alternative to giving a low rating. It is also easy to explain to visitors and food bloggers. Be sure to resolve all issues immediately if you schedule a second inspection.