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Is the use of tongs for finger food all wrong?

You come to a buffet with "finger foods" and you will find tongs, and even a sign requesting you use the tongs. But it always seems to me this is a backwards approach to hygiene. Imagine that a person at the buffet has a cold or flu, and as such their hands are covered with live virus. In Asia such people almost always wear a face mask to protect others, but that's not done in most other cultures. And nor do such people make special requests at the food.

If they use the tongs, they put the virus on the tongs, and now everybody else who touches the tongs pings up some virus on their fingers, where they will then touch the finger food, or their eyes, nose or mouth with them. Everybody.

If they are careful in picking up the finger food, only touching it, then they will not contaminate anything. If they are careless, they might brush their fingers on another item. Then only the one person who picks up that food item might put it in their mouth. (I don't know whether there is more risk from touching your nose or eating food with some virus in it.)

Of course, it matters what type of food. Discrete items, or items with things like skewers are low risk. Obviously things like bowls of chips or loose items are more likely to cause accidental touch, but again, still for fewer people than when everybody uses the tongs.

Solutions?

Just as Asia developed an ethos with the facemasks, we could develop an ethos for those with colds -- ask somebody else who is not infected to serve you -- with hands or tongs. Of course if there are caterers, you can ask them. It's a bit embarrassing so people don't regularly do that, but we could learn to do it.

That solution suggests to not remove the tongs, though otherwise that would be the right choice on well isolated foods that can be easily picked up without risk of touching other items.

Catering trays often have napkins of course, and so we could also just try to make sure the infected take a napkin to grasp the tongs, then dispose of it. There could be at sign at the start of the table saying:

"Have a cold? Please wash your hands and grab one of these protectors before handling serving utensils. Thanks."

Alcohol hand sanitizer could also be placed there, since people will resist giving up their place in line to go wash their hands.

Other catering fails

Often there are very long lines for catering when there need not be. Of course, the most common situation is tables put against a wall, allowing people to only line up on one side. When possible, people should line up on both sides, and have signs and serving tools on both sides.

Generally, people need one hand to hold their plate and another hand to serve themselves. As such, they don't want to pick up their cutlery and napkins (unless they have a cold, as above) at the start of the line -- they should always be put at the end unless they have a use. Put napkins at both ends.

Out of order execution

In many cases a long line with have gaps at the trays because one tray has people take longer at it than others. This is something that people who create CPUs study intensively. (With some irony, I have seen people notice this problem in the Intel cafeteria, where they have the world's best experts and solving such problems.)

The simplest thing, however, is for caterers to know how long the average diner takes at a given tray and put quick items first.

Here's another option which is complex and would be most efficient but takes some time to understand.

  • At each tray, would be a "line" with 2 spots, namely the person serving herself, and the person waiting for that tray.
  • There would be a main line for diners. When they get to the head of the line, they can only enter the secondary waiting area when it is empty.
  • In the secondary waiting line, the person at the head of the line can go to any tray that has zero or one people at it.
  • Once you serve yourself from a tray, you go to the back of the secondary waiting line.
  • When the secondary waiting line is empty, people from the main line can enter it.

This means it takes longer to get your food once you get to the head of the line, but you wait in the line for less since every tray is always at full utilization. The main blocker would be a particularly popular item that takes a long time to serve. That can be solved by duplicating that item as needed or putting it on its own small table so people can get at it from 4 sides.

This method does take a lot of room, of course, in comparison to the simpler approaches, but if you have seen catering lines where some of the dishes sit empty much of the time, it appears that a lot of speedup is possible.

What are your ideas for improving how well a buffet line works?

Comments

You get two shots at any one buffet item. Two. Two only! If you can’t pick up what you need in two attempts you MUST move along.

Here in Poland, there are single-use plastic gloves, which you put on to take bread or something, and then you take them off and throw away.

But there is a revolt on single use plastic. However, paper seems more tolerated though it's actually more energy intensive in its production (but less destructive in its disposal.) If your hand is wet from sneezing in it, though, it might not be enough.

From what I've read, studies indicate face-masks are mostly ineffective, at least when it comes to cold/flu, so that isn't a solution. There is a reason why medical professionals wash their hands religiously though and that you should wash your hands before eating is common knowledge, but it's just too much hassle to be practical most of the time.

It would be nice if restaurants had some sort of accommodations for washing your hands without having to go to the bathroom and touch bathroom handles and such (which might defeat the purpose). If you have a cold you could wash your hands an extra time before going to a buffet, and those who are sensitive to infection should probably take extra care to wash their hands just before eating.

To protect yourself I guess you could just bring along your own hand sanitizer, but around here at least, some people would look funny at you for using that (obsessive hand hygiene is a stereotypical OCD after all), so maybe a good start would be to just make use of hand sanitizer more culturally accepted.

The reason why there are seasonal flu epidemics every year is because flu is incredibly infectious and spreads via the air as well, so no amount of hand hygiene might be enough in that case. People staying home when they are feeling ill is probably a good solution (as well as vaccination of risk groups but that is already being done). Today's work ethics suggest you should take an aspirin and go to work even if you are ill though, and that's likely counter productive. But it seems sort of taboo to even suggest that.

Don't know how well it works, but a squirt bottle of alcohol rub at the start of the buffet would probably be a reasonable thing, and not cause people to look at you. Everybody should use it.

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