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.

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

    ...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.

    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.

    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.”

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

    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.

    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.

    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.

    A reservation isn’t necessarily a guarantee.

    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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    Your Comments

    • chefallen

      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.

    • Stefany

      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.

    • trickydick

      “I am not a crook”!

    • Claire

      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.

    • Sarahballard0

      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.

    • KP Ryan

      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.

      • chefallen

        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