The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired many restaurants to change and innovate to stay safe and profitable. Many have adopted new technologies, adopted new business models, or both. One of the most intriguing of these recent trends is the increase in the number of food conveyor belts.
The use of conveyor belts to bring food to customers’ tables is not new, but it has appeared almost exclusively in sushi restaurants until recently. At the end of 2019, the creation of the first cheese conveyor open, expanding the concept. As the COVID-19 pandemic brought new health problems, the trend intensified.
Burger King’s “Restaurant of tomorrow” concept, unveiled at the end of 2020, includes conveyor belts in the dining room and drive-thru lanes. Several other restaurants and industry insiders also discussed the possibilities of implementing these systems. But are they safe?
Health Benefits of Food Conveyor Belts
The draw for food conveyor belts during a pandemic is easy to understand. With a conveyor system, customers can get their food while staying a safe distance from any staff member. If customers also use a touchpad or similar system to order, this concept can provide a touchless experience.
Even if the pandemic subsides, this distance by design can prove to be a useful way to prevent epidemics. While conveyor-belt restaurants can slow the spread of COVID-19, so can other less contagious diseases. Limited contact will prevent sick customers or staff from spreading things like the flu to others in the building.
Food grade industrial conveyor belts are already used in food packaging factories, testifying to their safety. These belts are usually solid plastic or rubber, or have thermoplastic coatings, which makes them easy to clean. Since industrial food grade conveyor belts are safe enough for raw meat, they are unlikely to pose a risk to cooked foods.
Potential problems with food conveyor belts
Despite these advantages, food conveyor belts still have potential health drawbacks. One of the main reasons why these systems have mostly remained in sushi restaurants is that sushi is usually served at room temperature. Foods that need to be kept hot or cold can have problems on a treadmill.
In many conveyor belt establishments, the mat serves as a buffet where customers take the dishes they want. One downside to this system is that food can go unclaimed, circulating between tables for long periods of time. This unclaimed food could reach the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, where bacteria grow the fastest.
While scientists now know that COVID-19 probably doesn’t spread much via surfaces, some other diseases do. Since a conveyor belt can be a restaurant-wide shared area, this can be a cause for concern. If a client is sick and touches, coughs, or sneezes on the belt or near food on the belt, other clients can contract their germs.
Safe design and use of conveyor belts
These potential health issues do not necessarily mean that food conveyor belts are unsafe. Restaurants can take several steps to ensure that these systems are as healthy as possible. The first step is to ensure high health standards in the design of the conveyor belt itself.
Restaurants should only use industrial food grade conveyor belts to ensure their materials are germ resistant and easy to clean. The system should also have as few areas as possible where residues can accumulate. Keeping everything relatively flat makes cleaning and sanitizing easier and prevents contaminants from building up.
Restaurants can further ensure safety through the way they use conveyor belts. Using separate belts for each table reduces the risk of cross contamination, but can also be more expensive. To avoid cross-contamination in a single belt system, restaurants can cover dishes with food safe domes.
Attaching timers to these containers can help restaurants see if food is turning too long. They can then remove any old and potentially dangerous dishes from the rotation, preventing the build-up of bacteria. These timers can also help customers avoid certain foods if they prefer to have the freshest options possible.
Staff should also clean these conveyor belts regularly. Wet cleaning is not ideal during operating hours, as it limits the processing time since it must dry. Instead, staff can wipe down the belt with antibacterial wipes as it passes through the kitchen, and then perform a deep cleaning after closing.
The restaurant industry is changing
Overall, food conveyor belts, with proper preparation and maintenance, are safe enough for the restaurant industry.
Given their health and efficiency benefits, these systems may begin to appear in more facilities over the next few years. The concept of the treadmill, like many recent dining trends, may serve as a way to survive the pandemic but actually last long afterward.
The restaurant industry is at the start of a dramatic change. Restaurants are adapting and changing on an unprecedented scale in response to COVID-19. Food conveyor belts, one of the most innovative examples of this trend, could start to take off in this movement.
Emilie Newton is the editor-in-chief of Revolutionary Magazine. She has over three years of writing experience for the food and beverage industry.