BY OLIVIA CAMERON- As we begin to see our little town unfold itself and prepare for the beginning of another season, businesses on Gasparilla Island are preparing for high visitation. With a bustling golf cart path and Northerners eager to taste their favorite Boca Grande flavors once again, all eyes are on the operations of local restaurants.
Recently, Managing Partner and Senior Trainer Ron Pavlick of the Hospitality Training Group crossed over the causeway to provide select restaurants with a specific training course. Ron is a certified ServSafe food and alcohol manager, trainer and proctor. He has been training in the food service industry for 15 years and has been a culinary specialist for 30 years.
“I have regular clients, including Eagle Grille and Miller’s Dockside, South Beach and Scarpa’s Coastal, who train with me on food safety. As of recently, they each chose to partake in an optional course on how to operate in the pandemic,” said Pavlick. This is just in time for National Food Safety Month.
The pandemic operational training is not mandated in the state of Florida, unlike other food and alcohol safety courses. However, Pavlick stated that having the extra training shows customers the care that goes into their daily operations. The voluntary class is $350 and allows restaurants to hang a sign showing their certification.
“I wanted to recognize the Boca Grande restaurants for going above and beyond when they technically didn’t have to,” said Pavlick. “The story that needs to be told is of the diligence of these restaurants. They are making sure their patrons and staff members are safe. I can’t guarantee that is the case for many restaurants in the state.”
Of Pavlick’s 70 clients in Florida, 20 have permanently closed since the economic shutdown.
Pavlick’s new course on operating during a pandemic trains restaurant employees how to reopen and stay open without creating an environment for a fast-spreading virus. The course is backed by the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. His teachings, however, are built on the basics.
“The foundation of this course comes from things these staff members have heard before. I preach diligent hand washing. But when many people question the safety of the food itself, I tell them not to worry, as long as the cooks are following the mandatory guidelines.”
These guidelines require kitchen staff to wear masks and gloves even before they begin to prepare the food. “This way, germs are not ending up on the food or the refrigerator door handles. Each night, these frequently touched surfaces are also cleaned.”
Pavlick also teaches the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting, recognizing actions designed to reduce risk of spreading the virus, and physical and operational changes for restaurants to implement. Restaurant staff members are trained on respiratory hygiene practices and a five-step hand washing process as well.
As a local, Pavlick is glad to know the island restaurants are remaining reliable. The former Navy culinary specialist spent 11 years preparing food with high safety standards. “The food safety standards are impeccable in the military. There was never a foodborne illness, unless someone was complaining too much,” Pavlick joked.
“I never thought I would have seen anything like this in my life,” said Pavlick. “Of course, the guidelines are constantly evolving but these restaurants are on top of things.”
Today, he monitors the way local restaurants are maintaining their cleanliness so they can walk away with a stamp of approval. “I know people on the island may be worrying about the safety of these restaurants, but when you have managers and owners like these who call to ask questions frequently, there is no need to panic. I want the people on the island to take a deep breath and feel more comfortable going out again.”
Local restaurants that have taken the extra step are glad to have signed up for the new course. Eric Oberg, general manager of Eagle Grille and Miller’s Dockside, decided it wouldn’t hurt to build on staff training.
“Our employees took the course because we had taken the Boca Grande Pledge and wanted to go a step further,” said Oberg. “You hear so many different opinions on how to operate during the pandemic, but we got the facts from Ron. We found this opportunity to be free of discrepancies.”
Whether or not they take the voluntary course, Oberg stated that restaurant staff of any eatery should be following guidelines. “Of course, we’ve been carrying out precautions to begin with. This has just reinforced our knowledge and dispelled myths we’ve all heard about the virus.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted restrictions on restaurants in Florida with the Phase 3 reopening plan. This allows restaurants to operate at full capacity. Despite the lift, Oberg will continue to limit the restaurant’s capacity and save room for social distancing.
“Our job is to gather people, and we wish we could.”
Down at the south end, South Beach’s Amy Wells felt the course has refreshed the training of her staff.
“Overall, we want to continue to protect our customers and staff members,” said Wells. “We know how important it is to sanitize often, after each table and menu use. We plan to follow the guidelines and keep our tables distanced as well.”
Scarpa’s Coastal is next in line on the island for training. For more information from the Hospitality Training Group, visit htgflorida.com.
Other island restaurants are partaking in a similar approach for pandemic training with trusted instructors.
Restaurants throughout Boca Grande aim to operate safely well beyond the pandemic.