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Restaurant uses 'touchless forks' to fight flu

The owner of The Real Chow Baby is a self-professed germaphobe who takes steps to fight the flu every day at his restaurant.

ATLANTA -- In a flu season, some places become the front line against germs. Churches, schools, and offices are a flow of people. Some of them are spreading the flu virus. Restaurants add shared flatware, drinking glasses, and table tops to the challenge.

"I'm a little bit neurotic," Chip Joyner,owner of The Real Chow Baby,said. "From the time I walk into any place, I don't touch the door handles." He is a self-proclaimed germaphobe. "Anything that people touch has to be sanitized."

Customers at the stir fry restaurant on Ponce de Leon in Atlanta say it's exactly what they want from a restaurant owner in the middle of a flu epidemic. "They're aware of what's going on and they are trying to prevent other people from getting sick, customer Jose Moreira said.

Joyner grew up in the restaurant business, and was always itching for better ways to fight germs. At the Chow Baby location, hand sanitizer stations are located at the front and back of the line. Extra-wide glass covers the stir fry food, so people waiting in line cannot breathe on it. There's always someone on call, so when a virus starts to spread, sick workers don't work. Joyner said the system was put to the test at the end of this summer, when something going around (not the flu) hit some of his employees.

"It went around for a couple of days, and we sent everybody home," he said. "And we always wash our hands, probably hundreds of times a day."

In 2009, when H1N1 hit the streets, the National Restaurant Association issued guidelines for how restaurants should deal with the epidemic. Joyner says they're recommendations his team takes every day. But then he took a bend towards something different.

"People say, Excuse me! I got a bent fork," Joyner laughed, holding up a specially designed "touchless" fork. A regular fork touches the surface of the table. For a germaphobe, it's a problem. "It's something that always bothered me, and once we started using the flatware and talking about it, our customers said the same thing."

Joyner's brother, a hand surgeon, invented the design. When the restaurant first made the switch, customers thought they were getting a mangled fork. The, those forks started disappearing.

"It means they like the silverware. We did expect some shrinkage, because it is a novelty item. It's a souveniour to some. But we'd rather them pay for it," he said with a laugh. Chow Baby does sell the special flatware. They're working on stocking special gift packs. You can also buy it on Amazon. A set of 20 pieces costs around $58.

The ranks of self-proclaimed germaphobes are swelling during what looks to be an extended flu season. They like the touchless forks, and they like the idea they're sitting in the middle of a war on germs.

"Now I know I'm not alone," Inez Powell said. She admits she sometimes cleans restaurant forks before using them. "I like to know that other people are just as concerned as I am with keeping things sanitary!"

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