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


      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

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_P6EXDWBOY7JQYX46KM52I3ABZU P00KIE

      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.

    • Joerodrig2012

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

    • http://www.facebook.com/gerri.manlove Gerri Manlove

      If you get online, you can decide in advance what to order. That way, you don’t have to handle the menu.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/3K3SZQ44XJDEMAV7MN3CPZUWYU Dave

      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. 

    • Susan Kline

      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. 

    • Helmut Wagabi

       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.

    • Sidnamshe

      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.

      • KP Ryan

        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.

    • Norman

      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.

    • 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.