At a time when sanitation practices are front and center as never before, hospitality establishments across South Florida have been working to achieve the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA)'s top honor when it comes to the health and safety of their guests.
A nonprofit hospitality-industry trade association, the FRLA's mission is to protect and educate Florida's $111.7 billion hospitality industry, which represents more than a million employees. Although the association has always held restaurants and hotels to strict sanitation, food safety, and training guidelines, the arrival of COVID-19 has made excellence in these areas more visible to the dining public.
Last year, the FRLA launched its Seal of Commitment (SOC) program, offering an updated checklist for establishments to offer enhanced safety and sanitation. As the FRLA's highest designation for hospitality safety and sanitation, the SOC denotes that a business has completed rigorous safety and sanitation above and beyond the basic requirements, FRLA president and CEO Carol Dover tells New Times.
"Florida’s hospitality industry has long had requirements for prioritizing employee and guest safety,” Dover says. "The COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for us to better demonstrate and execute sanitation procedures. These awarded establishments have made a bold statement to their guests and staff that will generate the confidence essential to our industry’s recovery and success."
SOC qualifications require that all managers have a current Food Protection Manager certification, that all employees have a current employee food safety certificate, and that all employees complete the FRLA COVID-19 sanitation and safety course. In addition, establishments must meet specific facility sanitation standards that include adherence to a written cleaning and sanitization checklist that has been submitted and approved with the establishment’s SOC application.
That checklist must include: front and back of house, restroom, and housekeeping cleaning and sanitizing processes; identification of high-touch surfaces and a schedule to frequently clean and sanitize them; use of cleaning chemicals and supplies that meet U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) COVID sanitizing guidelines; frequent and effective staff handwashing; and an employee health policy to self-report illness.
An SOC decal on the door means guests can be confident the business has met all qualifications, Dover says. That training is more detailed than standard food-safety training and includes COVID-specific guidelines based on procedures set forth by the CDC and other public-health and -safety experts.
Since the launch of the program in July 2020, 165 of the FRLA's current roster of 10,000 members have applied for the association's SOC designation, with an additional 30 currently in process. Upon meeting all qualifications, a business schedules an FRLA onsite verification review before the SOC is awarded. If an applicant fails to meet the seal's guidelines, the association will continue to work with the establishment until it fulfills all the requirements.
To date, the following Miami-Dade County businesses have earned the SOC:
Bakan, 2801 NW Second Ave., Miami
G.L.O.W., 97 NW 25th St., Miami
Latin Cafe 2000 (locations in Brickell, Le Jeune Road, and Hialeah)
Rusty Pelican, 3201 Rickenbacker Cswy., Key Biscayne
Talavera Cocina Mexicana, 2299 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables,
Whiskey Joe’s Bar & Grill, 3301 Rickenbacker Causeway, Key Biscayne
At Bakan, a Wynwood establishment that received the SOC this month, manager Victor Lopez tells New Timesthe decision to enhance safety standards has been a top priority since staff began offering indoor dining in August. Today, employees continue to implement the establishment's own COVID checklist to keep the restaurant on par with the FRLA's enhanced standards.
"We decided to have our own COVID-19 safety officer because we wanted to offer the safest environment possible to our patrons and to our staff," Lopez explains. "We're proud to stand out from other restaurants that do not have a COVID-19 officer on board with them."
Bakan's SOC designation also demonstrates that the restaurant has invested considerable resources in order to prioritize safety and health, he adds.
"This has caused everyone's usual daily routine at the restaurant to change by complying with the required guidelines," adds Lopez. "This takes a significant amount of man-hours, and a significant financial expenditure, as well as additional protective gear and cleaning supplies."
According to FRLA senior vice president Geoff Luebkemann, the SOC is designed to complement the enhanced safety guidelines prepared by larger national agencies such as the American Hotel Lodging Association and National Restaurant Association, which offer similar programs.
"The ultimate goal is that we all make it our combined effort to make safety and sanitation a top priority. We offer very useful and executable advice and guidance on how to operate in this new environment," said Luebkemann, from detailed information on operating restrictions and executive orders organized on a state, county, and municipal level to comprehensive vaccine resources and PPP guidance.
Despite the pandemic, Luebkemann is proud to see members working with the association to receive the SOC. He also attributes the association's steady enrollment numbers — which typically increased 4 to 6 percent annually pre-pandemic — to resources like the SOC program.
"Our demonstrated ability to support the industry and work with policy decision-makers at all levels not only helps the industry in times of distress — it also helps us prepare for the next one," adds Leubkemann. "Moving forward, if we have another public health crisis of this scale, we will be better prepared to ensure our members have a group that advocates for them. And — if there is a next time — we can have a game plan in place that requires no lockdowns."