Even if your establishment runs seamlessly, it's hard to feel entirely comfortable about a visit from the health inspector. Don't let yourself be too stressed about it, though. Inspections are a regular part of restaurant life, and each one provides an opportunity to be better at what you do.

Know What to Expect Before the Inspection

In any given jurisdiction, inspectors work from an established checklist. It covers a broad range of potential trouble areas, including general cleanliness, food-safe temperatures, and the proper use and storage of cleaning chemicals. Although the Food and Drug Administration's Food Code provides the basis for state and municipal food safety laws, each state has its own legislation. Individual municipalities can also have their own unique requirements. It's hard to meet any standard if you don't know what it is, so make time to read and understand your local health code. If at all possible, try to get a copy of the actual form used by inspectors in your area. This will give you a clear grasp of what they look for.

Always Be Prepared

Most of the time, inspections are unannounced, but you may know roughly when you're due to have one. The goal is to be inspection-ready at any time, so you may want to do a periodic "reality check" to see how well you're maintaining that standard. It helps to have a trusted colleague from another restaurant work with you to provide a second pair of eyes. (You can return the favor later.) Step methodically through the health inspector's checklist, verifying temperatures, cleanliness, and procedures as you go. If servers, dishwashers, or bartenders perform any preparation duties, make sure they (and their work areas) measure up to the same standards.

Attitude Is Important

It's important to go into the inspection with the right frame of mind. It's not a "me against them" situation, but rather a partnership. Both of you want—or should want—the same thing: a safe and well-run establishment. When viewed in that light, every inspection is a good thing. Entrepreneurs in other fields often pay outside consultants to advise them on best practices, and a health inspector provides a similar service at no out-of-pocket cost to you. Every inspection is an opportunity to learn better ways to get things done.

Ask the Right Questions

You should be an active participant in the inspection process. Give the inspector time and space to work, but also stay nearby and observe. Take notes and ask plenty of questions. This is especially important if you struggle with any areas of your food safety process, such as a physically problematic space within your kitchen. The health inspector sees hundreds of kitchens, and someone out there may have a better way of dealing with a tough space than you do. Even if your establishment passes the inspector's test with flying colors, it's never a bad idea to ask, "Is there anything I could be doing differently or better?" Anything the inspector points out will put you in a better position for your next inspection and may make your life easier in the interim.

Fix the Problems

If your inspection results in a subpar report, you'll have work to do. Fixing the specific issues brought up by the inspector is only a starting point. You also need to identify any underlying issues in training or staff behavior so you can address them. If there's a language barrier between you and your staff, you might need some help in translating corrective measures and appropriate methods. You should also try to arrange a follow-up inspection at the earliest practical date. The longer you go without a passing grade, the more it will impact your business. The inspector should be able to explain your options, and the most time-effective way to reestablish full compliance.

It's on You

At the end of the day, the results of your inspection fall on you and your key staff members. You don't just arrange or deliver food safety training, you're also responsible for determining how seriously food safety is taken by the rest of your staff. If you're less than scrupulous about cleanliness, they will be, too. On the other hand, if you consistently model and enforce food safety and cleanliness, your staff will pick it up from you.