The Zoo and Aquarium Kitchen:
Top Tips for Food Safety and Sanitation Practices

Besides the many food preparation duties, zoo and aquarium kitchen employees are constantly on the go adhering to the standard restaurant safety and sanitation guidelines put forth by the health department and others. In addition to maintaining scrupulous cleanliness, there’s inventory to keep track of, sometimes fleetingly, before the food is fed to hungry humans roaming the grounds.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is an all in one zoo, museum and botanical garden in Tucson, Ariz., and when guest stomach grumblings hits, they have multiple eatery choices, from a self-serve grill to fine dining cafe, coffee bar and snack shop. Behind the scenes, kitchen staff is following a prescribed cleaning schedule and health department guidelines, said Executive Chef Nick Ruman.
Some of the items on that daily to-do list involve rotating food items correctly, using sell by date guidelines, depending on each individual type of product, and Ruman checks refrigeration temperature controls daily. “Food is dated as it comes in, produce has expiration dates, and we sticker each as we receive it, such as lettuce and other highly perishable items.”
Aside from kiosks that house drink and snack machines, The Overlook Cafe is the sole eatery serving visitors to the Montgomery Zoo and Mann Wildlife Learning Museum in Montgomery, Ala. Keeping up with the turnover of food stuffs and equipment usage in the kitchen necessitates a steady stream of cleaning activity. “It’s an all-day, every-spare-minute operation,” said Food Service Director Debbie Harris. “We close our facility only one day out of the year and we’re catering at the same time we’re open as a restaurant. In the kitchen, as chefs are cooking even, they’re checking everything for cleanliness and people come behind them to clean and check. Every person is certified in the food safety program, ServSafe Food Protection Manager Certification, so everyone is cleaning everything, even windows and door knobs.”
The kitchen employees’ daily to-do list details become second nature as their work tasks, for example said Harris, washing hands before and after working with certain foods, after restroom visits, and touching any things that contaminate. “It’s a matter of making sure you’re conscious at all times of cleanliness.”
To ensure safe menu items, all food stuffs are dated with the expiration date, said Harris. “We go through food quickly so I don’t order too far in advance, and we rotate stock as part of our food safety program.”
Thorough teaching, training, organizing, and instilling a schedule of daily tasks are essential to keeping the kitchen area for the 2,000-square-foot Zoofari Cafe, front of house to back, squeaky clean at Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Ariz. General Manager and Executive Chef Don Morgan, mentioned just a few of the elements that clearly delineate to staff what to do when. “We have a specific schedule, such as cleaning larger items on certain days of the week to sweeping, mopping, washing tables down and changing to a fresh sanitizing bucket, all, several times a day.” Every morning several cleaning and sanitization buckets are set up, red for the soap and water bucket, bleach added to the green for sanitation, the two at every area.
For food safety, anyone involved in food prep carries a marker to date-label each item to know the date when first in to six days out, and to also date the food that is frozen.
At Jacksonville, Florida’s Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens Zoo, which features two full-sized restaurants and a snack bar, two negatives make a positive at the food prep area, because, said Senior Manager of Food and Beverage Division and Restaurant Catering Kim Ashley, staff is never not cleaning. “We try to do our cleaning as often as we can to stay ahead of the game so at the end of the day we’re not behind. Because I instill in employees to clean as we go along and when it’s a slower time to get ahead of the game, basically, we clean all of the time.”
The State of Florida is the source of the sanitation safety guidelines such as proper cleaning using the three-bin sink. All kitchen workers attend food handling class within the first 60 days of employment, and weekly meetings reinforce the principles of the ServSafe Food Protection Manager Certification.
A timer used for cooking any food, whether for the southwestern menu for the Palm Plaza Cafe or hamburgers for the Trout River Grill, assures food safety and, said Ashley, “Any food not used within four hours is thrown out.”  Also, a thermometer confirms that any food standing out is not within the danger zone temperatures between 40 and 141 degrees Fahrenheit.
At the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, Texas, the Water’s Edge Food Court provides visitors with a variety of sandwiches, hot dogs, salads and pizza to satisfy their appetites and more goes into the freshness and safety of the items on the food line than meets the eye. The daily routine includes the first-in, first-out order of foods, making sure all products are rotated and dated, checking that the refrigerator and the freezer is each operating at the correct temperature, checking for freshness of all product on the line, such as the meat and fish in the sandwich section including ham, turkey and tuna.
In fact, said Leon Burns, general manager of the restaurant, “Each day, a person is assigned who does a taste test of the tuna salad.”
Underlying the specific precautionary steps taken, is a general premise for kitchen cleaning etiquette that assures personal responsibility and that has become dogma for Burns, in the restaurant business for 40 years. “If you make a mess, clean it up and don’t leave it for someone else.” –

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