Effective Audits Not Just for the Big Boys

Success stories abound about quality assurance, food safety and sanitation at major companies like Jack in the Box, Tyson, General Mills and Darden.

Smaller companies or departments focused on food service or manufacturing may think that having the latest technology to support quality assurance, safety and sanitation programs is out of the question.

When I started as director of food safety at The Holland Inc., a restaurant concept company in the Pacific Northwest, I thought my department wouldn’t have the time, workforce, money or support from higher-ups to develop or purchase an electronic data collection and reporting solution.

I was wrong.

You are never too small to have some type of auditing and data collection program to help identify problems. What system you choose and how effective it is is the question.

Upon joining The Holland Inc., I found they were using an eight-page checklist developed as a Microsoft Word document. I fine-tuned it into a 12-page form. The only information that could be compiled from it was the total score. The total scores for all restaurants in the company were then entered into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

Compiling other data, such as most frequent items marked, required going through all 12 pages for 39 restaurants. This didn’t happen very frequently. Because all of the audits were done by the same person, what was in that person’s memory was how some items were prioritized. Memory was not quantifiable, especially when it came to needing to write business plans and return on investments (ROIs). Paper was only effective to a point.

I started to investigate ways to make my work easier and more cost effective. At conferences I asked what the “big guys” were doing. I talked to vendors and searched online.

I found electronic data-collection and reporting systems as well as third-party auditing companies with data-collection systems. Most of the options I found appeared to be cost-prohibitive for our small company. I also asked IT what they were paying for the other back-of-the-house software we had.

After a couple of years, it was clear the cost of food safety and sanitation to the company would be huge if I didn’t get a better system. I knew I wanted to identify problems faster at individual restaurants and companywide.

I became most comfortable with Steton’s data collection and reporting solution. One of every four leading food-service chains uses Steton, based in St. George, Utah. They took my 12-page form and converted it to an electronic form available on my hand-held computer.

The results were immediate. The amount of time to audit a restaurant, get the score and give the restaurant feedback was cut in half. I also have all the results from each audit at my fingertips to formulate multiple reports. I can drill down and view more exact data on certain areas of the restaurants or view everything as a whole.

After a year of using the technology, we began having our restaurants perform monthly self-inspections with Steton’s software. Previously, they had used paper to manage inspections — not the most effective way to measure results. With data collected by our internal team, along with the self-inspection data, it didn’t take long before we could readily identify trends and take appropriate action. I quickly recognized that our ability to manage our food safety program proactively provided us with a significant return on investment.

How do you start putting together a food-safety program if you don’t even have an audit form? Start by going around your restaurant or small food business and list all of your equipment. Your maintenance team may already have such a list.

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