If you find yourself dreaming of a simpler life from the Before Times, you’re not alone.

By now, you’ve probably realized that restaurant sanitation has been fundamentally changed for the foreseeable future. We’re getting a feel for what a lot of people are calling “the new normal” and while we may be quite ready to get on with it already, it’s going to be a little rocky as we figure out exactly how to move forward as a nation — and as a planet.

While we’re navigating the tricky waters of guidelines, orders, variants, vaxxed, and vaxxed-not, it’s very important to keep ourselves (and our staff!) aware of current trends and expectations as well as educated on the science behind it all. 

Keep reading to find links to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines by state and up-to-date guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as checklists and practical advice on staying safe and staying open for business in today’s post-pandemic foodservice industry.

But first, what’s the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting?

Glad you asked! These terms often get used interchangeably, but in order to correctly follow modern safety guidelines, it’s important to understand how they’re actually very different.

Cleaning removes visible dust, debris, and dirt by washing or scrubbing with soap and water, and is an important first step in properly sanitizing or disinfecting any surface. The CDC says, “This process does not necessarily kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.” All you really need to get a surface nice and clean is a basic cleaning agent like mild soap, a rag, sponge, or scrub brush, and water. Once you’ve effectively removed visible dust and dirt, you can move on to sanitizing. 

Sanitizing reduces the number of germs on surfaces to a safe level through the use of heat (like steam) or chemicals. To be considered a sanitizer by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a product must show a reduction of at least 99.9% in each test microorganism compared to the control. However, these products are only meant to reduce the number of germs. They don’t get rid of them completely, and they also don’t kill viruses or fungi. Sanitizing is ideal for reducing germs on things like food or cooking equipment that shouldn’t have contact with the harsher chemicals found in disinfectants. A list of specific germs targeted by chemical sanitation products can be found on the product label.

Disinfecting destroys or inactivates both bacteria and viruses and is an extremely reliable way to reduce the risk of spreading germs that travel by touch. Disinfectants work when the product remains on hard, nonporous surfaces for a specific length of time. That length of time is known as “contact time” or “dwell time” and can influence your choice of product. Researching the recommended contact time of a product will help you determine whether it’s appropriate for your routine. Just like with sanitation products, a list of specific germs and viruses targeted by the product can be found on its label.

Incorporating sanitation into your cleaning routine

Every restaurant owner wants to avoid cross-contamination, foodborne illnesses, and negative reviews. With higher customer expectations and more at stake than ever before, it’s essential to keep your operation not only clean but also thoroughly sanitized.

Keeping an entire restaurant clean is a massive task that requires the right cleaning products, but first and foremost, it requires a plan. Taking time to create checklists of tasks to be done on a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual basis will ensure nothing important gets overlooked.

Using the checklist strategy is equally effective for your sanitation routine, but the key difference is frequency. Sanitization checklists are completed after each guest, every few hours, twice a day, and daily. That may seem like a lot, but in addition to effectively keeping germs at bay, visibility of frequent sanitation procedures builds trust in your restaurant by making guests feel safe.

You probably already have routine protocols to keep your space clean and up to code, so adding sanitation measures into an existing routine is easy.

None of the items take more than a few minutes, but larger operations with more items to sanitize might consider scheduling a staff member for each shift to oversee the responsibility. Some places are even designating a new job title such as “Sanitation Manager” to make sure the new procedures are followed. If your space is small or staff is limited, one staff member could easily handle both cleaning and sanitizing. The key is simply finding a routine that works.

Completing these suggested tasks on a regular basis will help keep your space not only clean but also safer for your staff and customers. All of the items on these comprehensive lists may not apply to your establishment and routine, but these sample checklists will get you on the fast track to the Sanitation Station!

General Sanitation Checklist

These sub-lists are organized by suggested cleaning frequency and can be used in all areas of your restaurant. The more frequently a surface or object is touched, the more frequently it needs to be cleaned, so use your best judgment when adjusting the frequency to suit your needs.

After each dine-in guest:
Sanitize table & chairs
Sanitize non-disposable menus
Sanitize booster seats or highchairs, if used
Sanitize pens & check holders

Every 2 to 3 hours:
Sanitize doorknobs/handles
Sanitize counters & prep surfaces
Sanitize handles on pitchers & scoops
Sanitize beer tap handles
Sanitize cash registers, credit card machines, and phones
Sanitize community condiments & caddies

Twice a day:
Sanitize restroom surfaces (see Restroom Sanitizing Checklist)
Sanitize surfaces inside delivery vehicles
Clean waiting room seating & host counter
Clean serving trays & carts
Clean controls for lights, music, and thermostat
Clean handles & knobs on all appliances

Once a day:
Wipe down walls
Sweep/vacuum/mop floors
Clean restaurant lobby decor that guests may touch
Clean glass on doors and windows (some high traffic areas may require cleaning more often)
Clean restrooms (see Restroom Sanitizing Checklist)

Restroom Sanitation Checklist

Use this checklist as a guide for keeping your restroom in great condition each day and throughout the week.

Twice a day:
Sanitize entry door touchpoints
Sanitize touch points on sinks & dispensers
Sanitize stall door handles
Sanitize toilet & urinals

Once a day:
Wipe down glass & mirrors
Sweep & mop floors
Sanitize sinks & counters
Empty trash (heavy usage and/or a small trash can could mean you’ll need to do this more frequently)

Wash walls & stall doors
Wash stall partitions
Clean floor drains

Limiting contact and shared surfaces

Even with so many new efforts being made toward keeping our spaces sanitized, germs and viruses will continue to find a way to show up — albeit uninvited. They may be sneaky, but we’re the smart ones! Beat those pesky things at their own game through the use of technology. Phase-out physical menus by posting yours on a digital board in-house, or by providing a QR code for customers to peruse the menu on their smartphone. Mobile ordering through a custom app or a local delivery service will reduce contact between customers and staff and giving diners the option to pay digitally can help do away with the need to physically handle cash or credit cards.

Any new processes you can implement that reduce the need to touch surfaces, objects, or people will help prevent the reintroduction of the germs and viruses you’ve worked so hard to eliminate.


Keeping your staff and patrons in the know about the sanitation measures being taken within your restaurant will go a long way toward maintaining a positive rapport with your guests and a sterling reputation in your community. Clear communication can take the form of signage and posters displayed in both staff-only and public areas, or statements made by staff to guests. If you operate a social media account or email list for your restaurant, communicating about your sanitation efforts through these channels will reassure guests that your establishment is a safe place to visit.

Although we all hope to avoid sickness within our workplaces, the possibility remains that a staff member could test positive for COVID-19. It’s best to be prepared for such an event with pre-written statements for your employees, guests, and the media. Being transparent about negative situations will increase the level of trust from your team as well as your clientele and being prepared will help you stay focused on — you guessed it — sanitation!

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