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Experts You Can Count On

Chef and restaurant proprietor Jason Smith never met NC State Extension food safety specialist Ben Chapman before the coronavirus hit. Now they’re Facebook friends, and someday Smith hopes to thank Chapman and his team in person for the training they created to help restaurants protect employees and customers.

More than 13,000 restaurant workers—including the staff at Smith’s restaurants, Cantina 18 in Raleigh and Harvest 18 in Durham—have completed Count on Me NC training. The modules provide science-based recommendations for managers, waiters and kitchen staff.

“Count on Me NC did an awfully good job presenting information in a functional way,” says Smith, a 25-year restaurant industry veteran. “I was worried it would be more like a science class, but we got what we needed—best practices to protect ourselves and the public.

“The training was memorable, packaged for people in the trenches.”

Count on Me NC grew out of a public-private partnership: expertise from Extension, funding from the state Department of Health and Human Services, and backing from the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA) and Visit NC. The training was created while dining rooms statewide were closed, before reopening at 50% capacity on May 22.

“When we reopened restaurants, we knew customers would have some reluctance about returning,” says Lynn Minges, NCRLA president and CEO.

“We knew we could create a safer environment by using social distancing and following protocols, but we needed a program in place to help train employees quickly as restaurants reopened and to help make customers feel comfortable coming back as we welcomed them back into our dining rooms.”

Count on Me NC, available in English and Spanish, is part of onboarding for staff at Smith’s restaurants. He displays the completion certificates prominently, thinking of the future.

“Our goal is to come out on the other side of this,” Smith says.

Chapman and an expanded NC State team will be there to help. They received a $1 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to lead a project on COVID-19 food safety research and outreach to the food industry. FoodCoVNET, funded through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, includes researchers at NC State, Rutgers, the University of Florida and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“We really want to understand how the pathogen moves in food settings and who’s at most risk,” Chapman explains. “Some of the work will look at virus persistence and some will look at efficacy of face coverings for workers such as cashiers.”

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.