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

    • Hal

      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.

    • manxcat575

      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….

    • S.S.

      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.

    • Sparrow

      *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.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/P6KWNN7DEDDT77VW5NDGXIKPL4 roland

      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. 

    • ROSS ROBERT55

      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

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/PXYJWSBB3TY23JXO7RNABUEUYQ Greg

      “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.

    • Caswalmac2

      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. 

      • KP Ryan

        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

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/53GAG5TFPQ6N75L7HBMAP7ZDHM Shane H

      So essentially restaurant employees handle food and hygiene no differently than most of us do at home.

    • Cindy

      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.

      • Caswalmac2

        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.

        • KP Ryan

          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.

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/ZFAPR2QESW6GSAU4AJW266ZVWY Cyndi

           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. 

          • Restaurantmanagerknowitall

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

          • Restaurantmanagerknowitall

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

      • chef l

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