Dirty Restaurant Secrets the Kitchen Crew Won’t Tell You

What's going on back there? Keep your budget and health in check with these insider secret restaurant tips from the other side of the kitchen doors.

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Our waiters don't wipe down the menus between customers...

Our waiters don't wipe down the menus between customers...iStock/Peeter Viisimaa
...or salt and pepper, or bottles of ketchup and mustard. It may come as no surprise to a germaphobe that restaurant kitchens are bacteria paradise. But bugs dwell on tabletop items too. Good Morning America sent a team of scientists to swab the items on the tables of 12 restaurants, including the items mentioned above. They found that menus carried the most germs, with an average count of 185,000 bacteria—nearly 16 times that of the second most germ-infested item, pepper shakers. (Everyone looks at the menu. Not everyone loves pepper.) Next time you're out, place your order. Then wash your hands before you eat.

We get sick, too.

We get sick, too.iStock/frenky362
But taking a sick day is not always the reality. According to a recent study by The Food Chain Workers Alliance, 53 percent of food chain workers reported going to work when sick. “A lot of poor, transient people work in restaurants,” says Peter Francis, coauthor of industry exposé How to Burn Down the House, in Wall Street Journal’s SmartMoney. “They're not giving up the $100 they'd make in a shift because they're sick.” Keep an eye out for chefs sitting on the sidewalk smoking, sneezing, and coughing in their hands, says Chris Gesualdi, chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education.

Sometimes we touch more than food with our plastic gloves on.

Sometimes we touch more than food with our plastic gloves on.iStock/elenaleonova
Plastic gloves give cooks—and therefore, customers—a false sense of security. “Plastic gloves are more dangerous than bare hands,” says Howard Cannon, CEO of Restaurant Expert Witness and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting a Restaurant. Michael Laiskonis, a New York pastry chef, agrees. “It’s easy to touch raw pork, then move onto touching another food item. Those very gloves become the vehicle for contamination when not changed often enough, or worse, when the same gloved hands that prepare food then go into a cash register.”

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If our bathroom's dirty, imagine what our kitchen looks like.

If our bathroom's dirty, imagine what our kitchen looks like.iStock/Squaredpixels
For a clear sign of a restaurant’s sanitation standards, just step into the restroom. “Reality is when the bathroom is filthy and every customer can see, just imagine how dirty the kitchen is where the customer can't see,” says Cannon. Just because employees must wash their hands before returning to work doesn’t mean you—or your food—are safe.

That marked-up pasta dish pays my wages.

That marked-up pasta dish pays my wages.iStock/flyfloor
You know something like pasta costs only a few pennies and is usually topped with something that costs only a little more. But it’s safe to assume you won’t see $1.50 rigatoni on a menu any time soon. Bottom line, restaurants need to turn a profit. “At a fine-dining restaurant, the average cost of food is 38 to 42 percent of the menu price,” says Kevin Moll, CEO and president of National Food Service Advisors, in Wall Street Journal’s SmartMoney. You also might be charged for sharing, cutting, corking, and other services that require minimal manpower. Markups help pay for kitchen labor, wait staff, décor, music, advertising, or even real estate costs.

We just dish it out. We don't count the calories.

We just dish it out. We don't count the calories.iStock/nd3000
Many of calorie counts on menus are inaccurate. And even worse, most inaccuracies lie within the “healthy” part of the menu. According to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, about one in five “low-calorie” menu options contain 100 more calories than menus state. Portion sizes and cooking procedures vary widely in the sit-down restaurant world, leading to a wide range of actual calorie content. In fact, more accurate calorie counts can be found in fast-food chains, where ingredients come to cooks already portioned.  

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A reservation isn’t necessarily a guarantee.

A reservation isn’t necessarily a guarantee. iStock/Kwanchai_Khammuean
What's more attractive: the loud and bustling restaurant or the empty joint next door? Exactly. Because of this, restaurants often overbook in order to fill their tables. “Overbooking is almost a necessary evil,” says John Fischer, associate professor of table service at the Culinary Institute of America, in Wall Street Journal’s SmartMoney. On any given night, restaurants calculate their average no-show percentage and overbook the restaurant by that much, hoping it will even out. But for the more popular spots, the scale ends up tipping toward a case of overbooking.

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39 thoughts on “Dirty Restaurant Secrets the Kitchen Crew Won’t Tell You

  1. Scare tactics. I’ve worked in food service for over a decade. The most laughable part to me is, “watch out for chefs sitting on the sidewalk…” first off, any decent place would have a smoke break area well out of the customers’ view. Second, any time a chef ( the highest rank in the kitchen so presumably the highest trained), leaves the kitchen for any reason, they should automatically wash up before touching any kitchen anything! ! I would surmise any establishment that would allow a “chef” to sit outside smoking, coughing, and sneezing and then touch food and tools, would be closed shortly. After all, if the chef is outside, he’s not cooking, so there must not be orders up or customers seated!! Lol

  2. I hate smoking. it disgusts me. I hate seeing restaurant people standing outside smoking. hate it.

  3. I love the indication that restaurant workers are poor transients. That was fun!

  4. Your kitchen workers almost never see the bathroom. That is usually handled by the front of house. Say you get a good carbonara (very common pasta) prosciutto ham costs about $20 a pound. Pesto and the pine nuts used to make pesto is very expensive. Any serious kitchen you change gloves every time you touch anything that can be cross contaminated and wash hands between glove changes. Your chef or manager will be very strict on this. That being said a few things are true at any place and every place is different. Most kitchen workers are cleaner and more disciplined than your waitstaff. Two very different types of people.

  5. I disagree that if the bathroom is dirty then the kitchen is dirty. Where I work, the hostesses are in charge of keep the restrooms up to par. We have lots of nasty customers. No mater how frequently we clean up, someone is always going to do something nasty.

  6. Most of the restaurants I worked in required a doctor’s note.  So that meant if you were a waitress and you were half-dead with the flu and couldn’t afford to go to the doctor (and who could?  Most of those places didn’t offer insurance.) you still came in to work and interacted with customers and the rest of the staff.

  7. I’ve worked in the restaurant business for over 13 years. I just wanted to add that the towels used by bussers and expediters can be extremely filthy and can transmit bacteria from dirty plates and surfaces to clean ones. They also neglect sanitizing them. Gross.

  8. FYI…

    Yes, you can (and should) learn a lot by looking at a restaurant’s restroom(s)… I own one (not a restroom but a restaurant).

    I also cook 50 hours a week.  And I NEVER go back to a restaurant that has their kitchen staff in plastic gloves.  I wash my hands in soap and water between EVERY order.  Literally hundreds of time a day.  That way, I’m certain I’m not spreading bacteria from that raw pork I touched 25 seconds ago onto your already cooked chicken that I’m plating and will be at your table in 1 minute.   Gloves are now mandatory in a few states and they are the worst idea anyone has ever had for the restaurant/food service industry.  Nothing gives lazy or thoughtless folks more comfort than the thought that, because they wear cheap plastic on their hands, nothing will ever contaminate another’s food.

    Trust those who look responsible and clean and who wash…. eat at restaurants that don’t hide the kitchen from your view.  

    Additionally, if you can see the kitchen and it appears messy and/or the coolers and freezers appear dirty or ANYTHING looks out of place, realize… it looks like hell where it is out of site to your eyes.

    Finally, have a restaurant you trust?  Continue to patronize it, but if they ever disappoint in terms of sanitary conditions, make your concerns known to the owner/manager!  1 chance.  If same concerns exist on your next visit, make it your last.

    1. Tn now has this glove rule and it is stupid. We use nitrile and vinyl as vinyl doesnt create a biological barrier. And wash hands over and over and glove cost is up tenfold! Gotta watch people with these gloves

  9. yes it true we were instaling a steam tabel at a high class restraunt dad an i saw the cook drop a hambuger ding ding he served it up anyway he said thay will think the dirt is same seeds we never ate thair again

  10. I worked for a top resort hotel in a different capacity where I worked with the peoplein the SW where food handlers had to attend a class in proper food handling.  Has that( in this current atmosphere) now become a thing of the past?
    Am not that naive that I don’t know what transpires in the food kitchens.  Yuck.

    Just asking a simple question.    Thanks.

  11. What about when staff sneezes or coughs while preparing and serving food. I’ve yet to see anyone cover their mouth .

  12. The staff and especially the cooks in many ethnic restaurants are often ILLEGALS with minimal education and little English comprehension. They are also the most unsanitary personnel who are frequently carriers of many diseases. Have a careful look around at who is serving you and if you can, peek into the kitchen. Don’t be afraid to walk out if you don’t feel comfortable with who you see………. your impressions are probably spot on. I have inspected many restaurants and found appalling conditions in many ethnic facilities……….. 

    I write many reviews, travel all over the world, and I have learned what to look for. 

  13. Many years ago when I waitressed in Stouffer’s restaurant in Philadelphia, a cold ot the flu was not an acceptable excuse for missing a day.  Please don’t think that greedy staff  is the only reason for sick employees working around food. 

  14.  I work in a catering establishment and we ensure that everyone in the production area has washed hands with sanitizing soap before handling food or menus from the customers.

  15. Even in  5 Star Hotel Restaurants I have  seen irregularities(not hotel owners fault, its some employees) so it’s better not to know or see what is going behind the wall of dining area.

    1. Not trying to pick a fight, however;

      it is ALWAYS the owner’s fault.  

      That’s why, in general, you are better eating (and staying) at a locally owned business where the owner is on-site overseeing the operation.  

      Just because the business is a public corporation with no ownership on site, the business still deserves to be held to the same high standards with which any other business would (should) be held.

  16. We know unclean restaurant kitchens exist and sloppy workers, but there is little corrective action available to us. I think this type of publication only instills more fear into our  already fear laden lives.

  17. The number of people who get sick from eating our is so small it is insignificant.  If you like the food and service, let them know you will be back; if you don’t like it, let them know you won’t be back.  How hard is that.  There is no government regulation that can shut down a restaurant as fast as bad service and sick customers.

  18. The number of people who get sick from eating our is so small it is insignificant.  If you like the food and service, let them know you will be back; if you don’t like it, let them know you won’t be back.  How hard is that.  There is no government regulation that can shut down a restaurant as fast as bad service and sick customers.

  19. Well yah the cost of the kitchen labor, wait staff, décor, music, advertising, and real estate have to be factored into the prices.  The restauranteurs have to pay those – should they be paying them from their pockets?  Hello! they are in business.  I have run restaurants and also did a business plan for one.  Unless you are in a low rent but high dollar area (and those two don’t go together mostly) your food costs will be 38 – 60% of the cost of cooking and serving, depending on the menu (and cleaning up after) it. There is rent, gas, electric, water, insurance (very high). There is usually less than 15% profit. Oh then then there are taxes – not just on the income, but employment taxes to be paid on every employee as well as fica….

  20. Hard to get away from. Even doctors are careless. I went to 2 foot doctors, same clinic. They handle peoples feet. NO SINK in the exam room. After surgery on my foot he handled the open wound. Shortly after I got infection. It’s been over a year and I still have trouble with it. Can’t get a local lawyer to take the case.

  21. *eyeroll*  Big deal.  With all the germophobic hysteria, Americans seem to forget that EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD is covered with bacteria.  It’s literally impossible to maintain anything like sterility for more than a couple of minutes unless you’re in a locked-in environment.  And who would want to?  Lack of contact with bacteria makes us MORE susceptible to disease, not less.  Throw away all those “anti-bacterial” rip-offs, already – they’re just a way for multi-billion dollar corporations to laugh at you while they suction away your money.

  22. right , I ‘ve seen crew do this things and this is very unsanitary. I once chanced on seeing a crew use his shoe to push a low lying food tray that should be touched by hands only. I informed her supervisor. They all do the same. 

  23. it gose back to what mother said if u new what u are eaten u be mihty thin man she also said u should be happy u are eating alot of pepole artnt

  24. “What’s more attractive: the loud and bustling restaurant or the empty joint next door?”
    – That’s easy, the empty joint next door. I have no interest in noise or crowds, and they make the meal experience much worse.

  25. That’s not necessarily true about the bathrooms. I worked at an old old restaurant and the bathroom is old and gross and hard to maintain. Our kitchen was held to sanitation standards even where the customers can’t see. But it’s good to know the integrity of some restaurants. 

    1. You’re right. It isn’t always true, but when a customer is unable to view a kitchen, it is one of the only spaces one can view in order to determine the cleanliness standards of a proprietor

  26. My daughter works as a server in a national chain restaurant. If she’s sick and can’t get someone to cover her shift she has two choices: go to work sick or go to the doctor for the required doctor’s note. Of course the restaurant doesn’t pay her insurance co-pay.

    1. Same with my job. They act like you are lying and give you a really hard time when you try and call out so they ask for a doctor’s not. I spent $50 just to keep from losing my job when I didn’t even need to see a doctor.

      1. Chains (for the most part) are the very worst.  They are focused entirely on their ‘net’ and care NOTHING for their employees (and in truth care for their customers only in that their customers are spending $$$).

        If you work for a highly regarded, locally owned restaurant you (likely) will be treated better than those who work for a public corporation.

      2.  I understand were you’re coming from, the problem is the people who always call out and we know they are not sick, makes it so the bosses can’t trust anyone. 

        1. How do you “know” they are sick nostradamus? Please tell me… you can’t just “know”

        2. Were you coming from where? U mean where you’re coming from ? U are a genius?

          1. Resaurantmanagerknowitall you are a windbag. I “know” that for a fact

    2. Huny no doubt im a chef and not many in our idustry get sick days sad…

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