Natural Disaster Prep for Restaurants
Natural disasters are unavoidable and can be devastating to homes and businesses alike. While some locations are more susceptible to catastrophes than others, every business should be prepared for the worst. Having a plan for handling a variety of emergency situations can help keep you, your employees, and your customers safe.
The first steps to preparing for a disaster should be taken well before one is ever on the horizon. Creating an action plan is essential to maximizing communication and minimizing damage and downtime. Consider what kinds of emergencies you are most likely to face in your location – for example, those on the coasts should likely prepare for hurricanes, while businesses in the northern part of the country should have a plan for snow storms. Of course, many disaster plans will have aspects that overlap, so take advantage of that to prepare for as many emergencies as possible. We spoke with Curtis Switzer, owner of Odyssey Pizza and Subs in Cocoa, Fla., a business that has weathered many hurricanes over its 37 years in operation. The most recent storm the business weathered was 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, when the restaurant had a ‘hurricane sale’ after they lost power.
Supplies and Inventory
The type of emergency you are creating a plan for will determine what supplies you will need, but many of these overlap and most can be purchased well ahead of time.
Appliance and food thermometers help you determine if refrigerated and frozen food is safe to consume after a power outage. If there is even a possibility that food has been in the danger zone for two hours or more, it should be thrown out.
Containers filled with frozen water that can be put into your refrigerator can help ensure food is kept at safe temperatures while the power is out. Packing the open spaces in a freezer or refrigerator will slow the rate of rising temperatures, keeping food at safe temperatures for longer.
Having flashlights and batteries on hand can help prevent injuries if the lights suddenly go out. Try to have flashlights located in convenient locations around your business, such as in the kitchen and at host and wait stations.
A first aid kit is something every business should have. It should be checked regularly to ensure it is properly restocked as the supplies are depleted.
Tie-downs and anchors are essential for securing any portable buildings or outdoor equipment that cannot be relocated.
Other supplies are more appropriate to buy directly before a weather event, such as sand bags to prevent flooding and plywood to protect windows, but should be listed in your action plan to make shopping trips as simple as possible. Find out ahead of time where you can acquire the supplies you need to avoid making additional stops.
If you’re in an area where significant events are common, it can pay off to invest in some long-term supplies.
“The first thing we did was to have a generator power supply system installed, which allows us to turn on essential circuits to power our refrigerators,” says Switzer.
It is also beneficial to manage your inventory carefully before a storm that may cause power outages, he says.
“We keep a close eye at least a week before any impending storm, and try to limit any potential food waste by careful ordering, trying to balance the possibility of a large rush of customers due to ease of keeping pizza for times with no power, and the possibility we might be down for days.”
Training and Communication
Once you have developed action plans for emergency situations, make sure your employees are aware of the plans and know where the hard copies of these plans are stored. Keep in mind that in fast-moving, sudden emergencies such as fires and tornadoes, you may not be able to get there to direct your employees, so make sure they know how to keep customers and themselves safe in those situations. This training should be completed quarterly, in addition to the initial training to make sure your employees are always prepared. When the storm is one you can see coming ahead of time, you can also take steps to help your employees stay safe.
“We make sure our employees have taken the steps needed to be safe, which may be as simple as buying extra water and finding a shelter if needed, or being evacuated to other areas,” says Switzer. “Don’t stay open so long that you are putting customers’ lives in danger. People will try to get food till the last minute!”
A big part of your planning should be focused on internal and external communication. You will need to be able to communicate with employees and customers to let them know if you will be closed. Cell phones are often unreliable after a major natural disaster, so try to have an alternate way to contact employees, such as social media or email. Social media is also a great way to let customers know of any changes to your normal operating hours. Be sure to have contact information for emergency services, as well as your insurance company, landlord, plumber, and electrician in several locations.
After the danger is over, you must begin the recovery process. The steps you will need to take will vary depending on the damage your business sustained, but safety must always be the top priority.
“After the storm has passed, make sure that the local government has reopened the roads, and check for any bulletins regarding water [or] gas line breaks and any boil water notices,” says Switzer.
If you had to evacuate or could not access your restaurant, keep an eye out for debris and downed power lines when returning. Flood water can be especially dangerous, as it can obscure dangers or knock you down, even in depths as shallow as 6 inches. Check the temperatures on refrigerated foods that may have fallen below 40 degrees, and if there’s a chance they were below that temperature for more than 2 hours, throw them out. Undamaged, non-permeable containers and surfaces can be sanitized and used after contact with flood water, but any cardboard or unsealed containers of food must be thrown out.
“Food freshness is important. If you can’t find a way to refrigerate your food, don’t try to sell it quickly after the electricity is back on. [Write] down your loss and keep the receipts for tax time. The federal government always gives tax breaks to areas hit by storms,” says Switzer.
If your business sustained damage from a natural disaster, there is often help available so you can reopen and get back to work as soon as possible.
“There will be many government loans available to hard-hit areas and quick assistance to help you reopen without a huge loss of income,” says Switzer.
Federal assistance will generally be available from FEMA, and state and local governments. Additionally, the U.S. Small Business Association may provide disaster assistance.
As you plan for your restaurant’s safety in emergency situations, it is important to keep your personal safety in mind as well.
“Protect yourself first; the store can be fixed but it won’t run without you,” Switzer cautions. “Take time to install security cameras and a backup battery system so you can monitor your store from a distance.”
In case you, your employees, or customers have to shelter in place at your restaurant, make sure you have basic essential supplies available, including a first aid kit, bottled water, and emergency non-refrigerated food supplies.
For more information on how to prepare for and respond to a variety of natural disasters, including winter weather, earthquakes, tornados, wildfires, floods, and hurricanes, visit PrepareMyBusiness.org. The joint effort between Agility Recovery and the U.S. Small Business Association offers a comprehensive collection of checklists for preparing for specific circumstances, training exercises, and disaster assistance resources.