When you think about food safety, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

For many people, it’s headline-making incidents like national recalls of romaine lettuce amid E. coli concerns, or food-borne illness outbreaks at chain restaurants.

One thing is for sure: You do not want your restaurant associated with those kinds of events. While not all instances of foodborne illness are preventable (you can receive contaminated product without knowing, for instance), there are steps you can take to make sure your staff is handling food as safely as possible.

The first step is to ensure everyone at your restaurant who handles food has a ServSafe Certification. ServSafe is the industry standard in food safety training, and if your employees aren’t certified, they should be. Step-by-step, here’s everything you need to know about the Servsafe program, how to get certified, and what it takes to make sure your employees are experts at safe food handling.

What is ServSafe and ServSafe Manager Certification?

ServSafe is an educational program from the National Restaurant Association (NRA). It was developed to educate restaurant workers and other food handlers about the best practices in food safety. ServSafe certification isn’t required for all food handlers. In fact, whether any food safety training is required for food handlers varies by state or even by county (check out our map below).

In places where training is required, ServSafe programs are designed to meet most legal requirements. To ensure ServSafe does meet requirements in your area, you should contact your local health department before seeking certification.        

Map of the United States color coded according to food safety requirements
Source: ServSafe

Find ServSafe’s full interactive map here to explore the regulatory requirements for food handling, food safety management in your operating jurisdiction, and SafeServ certification expiration periods by state. 

ServSafe certification program options

The most common and popular program is ServSafe Food Handler certification, which is meant for people in employee-level positions in establishments that serve food.

The ServSafe Food Handler certification program covers:

  • Basic food safety
  • Personal hygiene
  • Avoiding cross-contamination
  • Time and temperature
  • Cleaning and sanitation

To become ServSafe Food Handler certified, you’ll need to complete an online course and pass a 40-question test with at least 30 questions correct, for a 75 percent score or higher. If you pass, you’ll be issued a ServSafe Food Handler Certificate, also known as a food handler card.

The highest level of training ServSafe offers is Food Manager certification. This program is meant for people in management positions in restaurants or other businesses that serve food.

The ServSafe Food Manager certification program covers:

  • Foodborne microorganisms and allergens
  • Personal hygiene
  • Purchasing, receiving, and storing food
  • Preparing, cooking, and serving food
  • Facilities, cleaning/sanitizing, and pest management

Becoming ServSafe Food Manager certified means taking an online course, and then passing a 90-question test with a 75 percent score or higher.

In some places, restaurants are required to have at least one person on staff with ServSafe Food Manager certification. Regulations vary by state or even county, so check with your nearest health department for your most up-to-date local regulations.

ServSafe also offers an alcohol program, which covers the unique dangers and safety considerations that come with serving alcohol. And there’s an allergen program, which helps train restaurant staff to better accommodate guests with food allergies.

Most restaurants will probably want to look into the Food Handler and Food Manager certification programs first, since they’re more about general safe food handling practices.

Why Take the ServSafe Exam?

If your state or county doesn’t require your employees to have food handler certification, what benefit does the ServSafe program offer your restaurant?

Comprehensive food safety training is the best defense your restaurant has against unsafe food handling practices, which can lead to an outbreak of foodborne illness. Getting your staff certified ensures your guests that food and beverages are being handled and served according to the best recommended practices in the food service industry.

Proper receiving practices are the foundation of every meal your restaurant serves. Read more about food safety.

How To Get ServSafe Certification Online, Step By Step

Many restaurant industry veterans will remember a time when getting food handler certification meant signing up for classes, carving time out of your schedule to go to them, and sitting with a proctor to take the certification test.

Today, all of that can be done online, which is likely to be a cheaper and more convenient option for most people seeking food handler certification. Plus, if you pass the exam online, you don’t ever need to worry about losing your certificate; you can log into your account and print a ServSafe certification copy at any time.

Step-by-step, here’s how to take a ServSafe course, take the exam, and get certified.

1. Check Your Local Requirements

As we’ve said above, local requirements for food handler training vary a lot. It could be the case that your local jurisdiction requires certification, but ServSafe doesn’t meet the requirements. Before you do anything, check with your local health department and make sure ServSafe meets both your legal requirements and your needs.

2. Select a Training and Exam Option

For most people, taking the online course and exam will be most convenient. If you would prefer to take the course in person, you can search on the ServSafe website to find an instructor and exam proctor near you.

3. Purchase the Right Materials

For people taking the online course and exam, all the materials you need will be included with your account on the ServSafe website. If you’re taking the exam in person, or feel like you’ll need supplemental study guides, there are optional handbooks you can purchase online when you purchase your course.

4. Take the Course

Whether you choose to take the course in person or online, you’ll be guided through each step of the process. The Food Handler course should take no more than two hours to complete – it’s estimated each section should take you about 10 minutes. 

The Food Manager course can take 8-10 hours to complete. Keep in mind that once you begin the manager course, you will have 90 days to complete the full course before your course access will be deactivated. 

5. Take the Exam

If you’ve purchased the online ServSafe course with the exam included, you can take your exam whenever you’re ready by signing into your ServSafe account. If you plan to take the exam with a proctor, you’ll need to find one in your area and schedule a time for the test.

You should note that while the Food Handler course includes 3 exam attempts, the Food Manager course only includes a single attempt. If you need to retake the exam, you must purchase an additional exam code – so make sure to study up before you attempt the exam! 

Tips for Having a Great ServSafe Certification Experience

Before you purchase a course and get ready to take the exam, here are a few tips to make sure your experience goes as smoothly as possible.

Don’t Buy a Used Course

Best practices for food handling get updated on a pretty regular basis. Buying a used course or handbook could result in learning out-of-date information that might cause you to fail your exam. It’s highly recommended you purchase the course and exam directly from the ServSafe website.

Choose the Right Language

This might seem like a no brainer, but choose the course in the language that’s most comfortable for you to learn in. Luckily, ServSafe provides their courses in multiple languages – English is offered, but so are a number of other languages, including Spanish and Chinese.

Take a Practice Exam

If you fail your ServSafe exam, you won’t be certified. You’re only allowed to take the exam twice within any 30-day period, so failing it twice could mean having to wait a month to retest. For Manager courses, you’ll have to pay for an additional exam. Don’t risk failing; take a practice exam to see where you stand before you sit for the real test.

Whether you’re seeking food safety education because your state requires it, or you just want to ensure your guests are as safe as possible when they eat at your restaurant, ServSafe is a great option.  

From all of us here at Notch – good luck on your exam!

Improve Your Restaurant’s Operations

Food safety is just one important piece of the puzzle. Want to learn more about improving your restaurants operations? Check out our Guide to Restaurant Accounting and Inventory Management.