A Sanitized History of the Sneeze Guard

The ultimate in food sanitation wasn’t always so welcome.

Keep your spittle to yourself.
Keep your spittle to yourself. / CSA Images via Getty Images

In April 1952, public health officials appeared at city hall in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to voice a concern. The city’s Dyckman Hotel, they argued, harbored an illicit buffet-style spread, dubbed a smörgåsbord, that they believed to be a serious threat to community health. They urged the city council’s health and hospitals committee to reject the hotel’s license renewal for food service.

“The smörgåsbord is the serving of food at a lower expense at the cost of sanitation,” acting health administrator Dr. Claire Gates said. Left unchecked, these food spreads could prompt illness and perhaps lead to restaurants saving money on waitstaff by letting customers gorge themselves with their own utensils.

It would be another few years before Minneapolis—and the world—was given a solution. One that came from a germophobe.

Germ Theory

The problem of what to do with self-serve food stations had been around long before those health officials assembled. While cafeteria layouts were common in hospitals, schools, prisons, and military barracks, they were typically staffed on one side by a server and isolated from germs or food fondling on the other side by a pane of glass. (Think Chipotle.) When Swedish-style smörgåsbords (smörgås meaning “food,” specifically an open-faced sandwich, and bord meaning “table”) came to America at the 1939 World’s Fair and offered a variety of options (like cold cuts) within reach of patrons, foodies were amazed. Now people could sample a little of everything—and depending on the policies of the eatery, could pile on a tremendous amount of food for one low price.

'Oh, are they all out of mucus?'
'Oh, are they all out of mucus?' / amriphoto/E+ via Getty Images

Johnny Garneau was one of many entrepreneurs to pick up on the trend. According to K. Annabelle Smith, who authored a 2013 Smithsonian piece on Garneau, this type of self-service restaurant picked up steam in the 1940s and 1950s, with Garneau opening his own in 1952—the same year Minnesotans were grumbling over similar buffets.

Instead of Swedish food staples, Garneau set out more American favorites like potatoes and roast beef. To emphasize this domestication, he dubbed it Johnny Garneau’s American Style Smörgåsbord.

But Garneau, who opened several successful locations in Pennsylvania and Ohio, found the lack of hygiene troubling.

“Being the germophobe that he was, he couldn’t stand people going down the smörgåsbord smelling things and having their noses too close to the food,” Barbara Garneau Kelley, Johnny’s daughter, told Smithsonian. “He said to his engineers, ‘We have to devise something. I don’t want these people sneezing on the food.’”

The “sneeze guard” had been around in name for some time but typically referred to the aforementioned panel of glass that prevented people from dishing out food directly to their plate. Alternately, some used sneeze guard to refer to a stainless steel barricade that blocked germs but also blocked the view of the food.

Garneau wasn’t the only one trying to come up with a solution. In 1956, school board members in Cincinnati, Ohio, debated the practicality of a horizontal plate of glass in school cafeterias with an opening at the bottom that allowed students to dish out their own food. (One school official complained the set-up was awkward, since students wound up knocking over trays as they pulled them out.)

In 1957, a Louisiana school district noted that a cafeteria in Opelousas was to be equipped with a 23-inch-high plate of vertical glass, leaving a 7-inch opening at the bottom. In May 1959, one Illinois roadside eatery, the Oasis, was said to have a “clear plastic sneeze guard” on the premises.

But Garneau’s idea was to make the glass horizontal (or diagonal) rather than vertical. The glass would block snot, germs, and other particulates from being expectorated over the food but still allow for guests to serve themselves while maintaining a full view of the menu.

Garneau’s spin was welcome news for sneeze guard adversaries who felt a full barricade was unwarranted. During the great smörgåsbord controversy of the 1950s, any attempt to keep diners from their serving spoons and hot meals was met with disdain.

“A good deal of the pleasure of a smörgåsbord is in picking around in the mouth-watering array of fish, meat, cheese, and scads of other delicacies,” wrote an anonymous Des Moines Register columnist in 1952. “Any artificial barrier between the gourmet and the [food], such as a proposed ‘sneeze guard’ and a white-coated disher-upper, would remove most of the essential gusto from this ancient and delightful ‘repastime’ … Moreover, we’ll wager more people have been laid low by sheer gluttony than ever fell victim of a mere germ at a smörgåsbord.”

It’s not quite clear when Garneau implemented his sneeze guard, but his claim to it is preserved. In March 1959, he filed a patent for an all-encompassing “covered food service table” that consisted of a buffet with a vertical, curved glass dome that kept food mucus-free. The patent was granted in December of that year; Garneau soon installed them in all of his restaurants. 

Snot’s Landing

When smörgåsbords—at least, ones with Swedish flair—dwindled in popularity, Garneau opted for a steakhouse theme but kept the buffets and sneeze guards. By the 1960s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was mandating their use as part of standard sanitary practice—just in time for the rise of the self-serve salad bar.

Children are pictured near a salad bar
Sneeze guards are now the standard at salad bars and buffets. / Tim Boyle/GettyImages

But do sneeze guards work? A guard may block droplets from above, but children are often at eye level (and therefore nose and mouth level) with the assortment of foods. Germs can also arrive via dirty plates—customers should be taking a new one with them each time they make their approach—or from food being kept in the “danger zone” temperatures (40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit) where bacteria can thrive.

And then there are the dirty serving spoons and tongs. But Garneau had a solution for that, too. In 1995, after selling off his restaurants, Garneau devised a more hygienic serving utensil that had interchangeable handles. When one patron was done loading up a plate, they could discard the handle; the next person in line could snap in their own. He called it the Sani-Serve. This patent, which Garneau was granted in 1997, was possibly too laborious for buffet aficionados and didn’t catch on. While the sneeze guard remains, so, too, do the germ-covered serving spoons.

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