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'You don't sell safety' | Modesto businesses reinvent safety for post-pandemic norms

For many businesses, the first challenge was reopening. Now, the challenge is showing the customer that it is safe to dine in.

MODESTO, Calif. — As a path to normalcy starts to get clearer, some restaurants might be facing a challenge even harder than reopening — convincing their guests that it is safe to dine in again.

“It’s literally the right question to ask… ‘How do you sell safety?’ and the answer is, ‘You don’t sell safety,’” said Todd Aaronson, CEO of Visit Modesto.

Modesto's hospitality industry had been staring down the safety question ever since the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic swept through the city and an industry with 6,800 local employees, according to Aaronson.

When the impacts came, Visit Modesto and local businesses got together and formed what would ultimately be "MoRestaurant Certified."

The program was designed to exceed guidelines California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CalOSHA), state and federal health officials, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for reopening restaurants. 

A full list of guidelines is available here, but the general idea is that any restaurant bearing the MoCertified shield has agreed to some of the following responsibilities:

  • Freshly laundered uniforms for every 8-hour shift
  • Washing hands and changing gloves a minimum of every 30 minutes
  • Staff temperature checks
  • Social distancing requirements

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The safety measures are designed to go above and beyond what is called for from the CDC and the state and includes care for staff and customers.

“I call it a covenant of trust between the customer and the hospitality organization. It really boils down to that,” said Aaronson.

This is part of what it means to show customers that the restaurant is safe. It's why Aaronson says these restaurants can't "sell safety."

“You can’t sell it. It’s not something you package up and market," Aaronson said. "It’s something you physically and actively have to do.”

As the grills fired up on Tuesday for Mike's Grillhouse, it was a concept that was firmly in the mind of owner Chris Greene. Ahead of the restaurants return to dine-in service on Tuesday, he rounded up his crew to seal in the importance of their new safety commitments. 

Being one of the MoCertified restaurants, Mike's Grillhouse looked a bit a different when it reopened its dining area. 

There are now wellness checks for staff, spaced out tables and hand sanitizer at the ready. If you stay long enough, you're likely to see the newly dedicated worker who's wiping down surfaces every 30 minutes.

It's a labor the crew has taken on to open up their dining area again.

“You just put the time in," Greene said. "You put the hours in, and, when you own your own business, you kind of just do what you got do.”

The restaurant originally closed for two weeks in March when the coronavirus shutdowns happened. It eventually found its footing and reopened with takeout and curbside pickup options, being supported all the way with their loyal customers.

“It was a very challenging time. I think it was challenging for just about every business out there, especially small business, small restaurants...,” Greene said.

Mike's Grillhouse isn't the only restaurant making fundamental changes. Redwood Cafe, another Modesto staple, added new walls and partitions to their dining area as they planned their reopening.

RELATED: Dine-in restaurants, retail cleared to reopen in Stanislaus County

Aaronson says some businesses are taking the challenge to heart, even creating their own programs within MoCertified.

“Some of the restaurants have taken this even further, where they’re putting plants between tables," Aaronson said. "They’ve changed their entire way they provide service to guests in their dining rooms and opened up the space…”

With MoCertified, the idea is to demonstrate safety with action. Aaronson says some restaurants are not accepting parties of more than six people, restricting patio use, and having guests wait until the whole party arrives before seating them.

At Mike's Grillhouse, reservations weren't something they were used to doing, but now they're asking guests to call ahead for availability, even if that means telling guests it might better to visit at a different time.

“It’s been blessed… people have been very patient and very kind and even when we’ve been on a wait, everyone’s been following the rules and most kind,” Greene said. 

Being able to finally reopen with normal hours and their full menu was a sigh of relief.

“It’s definitely an exciting time right now to get back to business as usual or what will be the new normal,” said Greene. 

The MoCertified program started around the time Stanislaus County got its variance to reopen retail and dine-in restaurants on May 20. It has already attracted around 10% of Modesto restaurants as members and has garnered interest from many more.

Greene credits the program for helping him move forward as his restaurant reopened.

More information on the program is available here. An online registration option for the program will soon be available on the site, according to Aaronson. 

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WATCH ALSO: Dine-in restaurants, retail cleared to reopen in Stanislaus County