Are commercial kitchens and businesses with food-handling areas cleaning up their act? Across the board, is there a greater focus on sanitation and buy-in from managers — or are pest management professionals (PMPs) walking into the same, old behind-the-scenes messes?

The jury’s out.

“I’d say they’re doing a better job than five years ago,” says Anthony DeLisio, owner, Insector Inspector, Highland Heights, Ohio. “I think people are more aware, and sanitation and cleanliness has definitely come to the forefront,” he says, noting that he services some restaurants and schools with cafeterias. “So, I keep giving them helpful tips and pushing sanitation — that helps.”

Doug Foster also sees more cooperation and interest in sanitation. His team members who are out in the field servicing kitchens says “the restaurants are looking cleaner during all of this” — referencing the pandemic. The owner of Burt’s Termite & Pest Control, Columbus, Ind., says “the restaurants that are staying open are trying to keep their workers on payroll.” Therefore, they can assign them sanitation tasks that might have taken the back burner before.

Before the shut-down last spring, some restaurants called in the pros for a deep cleaning and treatment before closing their doors. “They knew they were closing, so they wanted me to do final treatments and that helped — I didn’t walk into problems after them reopening,” DeLisio says. “And, they had time and employees, so they did some good, deep cleans then I came in and did my thing. Then they shut the doors.”

The opposite seemed to be true in the Valdosta, Ga., market where Bryan Baird operates Baird’s Pest Control. The food industry was frustrated with closing orders. “They were very frustrated, so when they closed, they just closed,” he says. “Then they got back, and some of those nicer restaurants that closed up too quick came back and small flies were everywhere. Of course, you can’t open up and clear them out, so that is when they started taking care of the problem.”

Now, Baird thinks his restaurant clients have upped the ante with cleaning and sanitation. “With COVID, people are very conscious of appearance,” he says. “Restaurants we treat are recommending us to others that were not doing it well before.”

On the other hand, some establishments have let their guard down after shifting to drive-through or take-out only. It’s out of sight, out of mind. “They don’t have to worry about the public walking up to the service counter and seeing a mess that might be there,” says Billy Blasingame, president, Blasingame Pest Management, Locust Grove, Ga.

And, short-staffed establishments are focused on ringing up business, not taking extra sanitary measures, Blasingame says. “That is why such a huge part of our program is about educating and keeping sanitation in the forefront. Often, restaurants do not do a good job of that.”

A cleaning program is only as good as the least interested employee. And budget comes into play, too. “There are definitely restaurant groups and franchises that take it more seriously than others, and on the whole, [sanitation] doesn’t appear to have become drastically more important to most people,” says Ashley Roden, technical trainer for Sprague Pest Solutions based in Tacoma, Wash. That said, “In the last five to 10 years, the tools have gotten better in terms of what we can do with bioremediation products to help them, as well as a bigger focus on exclusion.”

Lack of cooperation and poor sanitary practices in commercial kitchens is what led Eddie Lopez, owner of A Better Way Exterminators, to stop servicing these types of accounts. “A lot of times, these places didn’t have a proper kitchen built, with hidden harborage places for small flies,” he says of the mom-and-pop shops he used to service in Miami, Fla. “And a lot of times, sanitation was expensive for them — and they didn’t want to invest in buying foams or drain gels.”

His other frustration was when kitchen clients, in particular, would rather him treat a small fly problem with chemicals than evaluate their cleaning protocols. “They didn’t understand the restrictions for applying pesticides in food-handling areas,” he says, adding that overall, servicing accounts that wouldn’t cooperate was not worth risking his reputation.