Reviving the Restaurant Industry

A restaurant employee wearing a face shield uses a digital thermometer to take the temperature of a guest when entering the restaurant.

NC State Extension is helping support North Carolina’s $21.4 billion restaurant industry, which accounts for nearly 500,000 jobs (roughly 11% of employment in the state). To bolster a plan for reopening the industry, NC State Extension partnered with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association and Visit NC to launch the “Count On Me NC” program.

Count On Me NC was designed to help management, waiters and kitchen staff safely return to work and follow best practices. The free, voluntary program constitutes not just practical safety education for restaurant workers, but also acknowledgement of a business’s accountability to the public.

[Find more NC State Extension COVID-19 food safety resources.]

The certification positions them as businesses committed to the highest levels of sanitation and guest safety during COVID-19. In exchange for successfully completing the training, restaurants and participating employees receive certificates to display and the right to use the Count On Me NC logo in promotional campaigns.

Prior to reopening, 16,595 employees and 7,541 establishments were certified using Extension-developed online training modules. An additional 14,555 businesses were either registered to participate or in progress as of the end of 2020.

[RELATED: Food Safety Expertise Reaches Far and Wide]

Count On Me NC was enabled through funding from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and backing of the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA) and Visit NC. The training was created while dining rooms statewide were closed in 2020, before reopening at 50% capacity on May 22.

“Count On Me NC did an awfully good job presenting information in a functional way,” said Jason Smith, a 25-year restaurant industry veteran with restaurants in Raleigh and Durham. “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.”

Available in English and Spanish, Count On Me is part of onboarding for staff at Smith’s restaurants. He displays the completion certificates prominently.

Certified Count On Me NC businesses pledge to:

  • Ensure staff wear cloth face coverings if they cannot keep 6 feet apart.
  • Ensure safe sanitation practices are followed.
  • Administer health checks to all staff prior to shift start.
  • Make sure indoor and outdoor seating meets all physical distancing guidelines.
  • Provide hand sanitizer or handwashing stations at all entrances.
  • Clean and sanitize common areas, bathrooms and high-touch surfaces regularly using the CDC recommendations.
  • Clean and sanitize all tables and hard surfaces after every use.
  • Clean settings, utensils, menus and condiments after every use or provide single-use options.

NCRLA president and CEO Lynn Minges said the training was important in renewing consumer confidence. “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.”

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