Keeping Watch on Food Safety
NATIONAL REPORT — Convenience stores with foodservice operations have a two-pronged mission: deliver great-tasting and safe food to their customers. The first can be a challenge in terms of messaging, as c-stores don’t immediately come to mind for many consumers as a destination for immediate-consumption fresh food. That perception is, thankfully, changing as foodservice becomes more and more visible throughout the convenience channel. The latter, of course, can mean the difference between operating a thriving business and going out of business.
To stay on top of things, c-store operators routinely check temperatures in their freezers, cold doors and hot units several times a day, to ensure they are running at peak efficiency.
“Retailers usually walk around the store with clipboards,” explained Reggie O’Donoghue, director of product management, retail solutions, for Emerson Commercial and Residential Solutions. “There are typically thermometers in the fixtures themselves, and they’re logging the temperature that’s displayed.”
It’s an ongoing process, and the timing often varies — every hour; every shift change. “It all depends on the retailer and what’s being monitored,” said O’Donoghue. “Especially when things get busy, they have to take care of their customers first.”
Robin Gabriel, proprietor of Hinsdale Shell, an independent convenience store with a Shell-branded gas business in Hinsdale, Ill., has thermometers mounted on all of the store’s deli and foodservice coolers. “And we’ve got dials on the outside of our walk-in coolers, as well as hanging thermometers,” she said. “We’re checking those on a regular basis.”
At Hinsdale Shell, monitoring schedules for the various foodservice units — especially cold and frozen doors — vary depending upon their function. “Our big walk-in coolers attached to the beer case really don’t have anything perishable in them — only pop, beer, water and juice,” explained Gabriel. “So that’s not as big of an issue. But the milk coolers are checked two or three times a day.”
A separate cooler that contains items for immediate consumption, including juices, beer and lunch meats, is manually checked several times a day, as are the deli coolers throughout the store.
According to Gabriel, the local Board of Health provides impetus for retailers to make sure their cold and frozen units are running efficiently. “The Board of Health regularly comes in — four times a year — to monitor things,” she said. “They double-check to make sure all the coolers and freezers are being maintained at the correct temperatures.”
What exactly is “the right temperature?” David Brewster, design consultant to the retail industry, said manufacturers will provide their retailer customers with the information they need for proper settings, as well as the correct procedures for monitoring the equipment.
“Also, someone — probably the store manager, plus others — will have food safety training,” said Brewster. In addition, there are operational issues important for retailers to understand, “such as setting the beer cave at 28 degrees and keeping grab-and-go cases shielded so that hot air coming in the door does not degrade the products’ safety or visual appeal.”
Determining appropriate temperatures for foodservice units amounts to Foodservice 101, according to Mathew Mandeltort, vice president of foodservice strategy for Naperville, Ill.-based convenience distributor Eby-Brown Co. LLC.
“When McDonald’s rolled out the ill-fated McDLT back in 1985, the tagline was ‘Keep the hot side hot and the cool side cool.’ It’s the same with foodservice products,” said Mandeltort. “Produce can be a little trickier because certain fruits and vegetables like certain temperature zones. In that case, double-check with your produce supplier or the USDA for the correct storage temperatures.”
Mandeltort refers to food safety and food quality as “mission critical elements” of foodservice. As such, temperature monitoring should be done every day — at a minimum, he advises.
“In a perfect world, it would take place in real time,” he explained. “Fortunately, there are systems that enable foodservice operators to remotely monitor temperature activity by sending out real-time alerts in the event of a temperature anomaly.”
One such monitoring system is Emerson’s Site Supervisor, which not only monitors temperatures in the cold doors and freezers, but also controls indoor and outdoor lighting cycles and HVAC settings in the building.
“Our Site Supervisor is a facility control platform that allows retailers to manage their system needs — HVAC, refrigeration, lighting, etc.,” O’Donoghue explained. “That will help them create the ideal shopping environment and allow them to focus on what they do best: serve their customers.”
He describes Site Supervisor as a “flexible platform.” For c-stores, it typically consists of one controller that manages all of their systems. For single-store operators, the controller is located in-store, which allows for localized monitoring of said systems. For larger chains, units can be connected to remote centers for monitoring. “Some chains outsource that to third-party vendors to monitor their facilities; others do it themselves,” O’Donoghue noted.
In terms of investment, the system is quite reasonable overall. “A rough estimate for installation of the controller and then tying it into site systems would be less than $5,000 for the basic system,” he said. Then, the monthly fees are also reasonable. “I believe that you can get some basic monitoring for about $25 a month,” he added.
Site Supervisor employs a variety of methods to alert retailers that something’s not right with the climate in their facilities. “You could have an audible alarm established,” said O’Donoghue. “You don’t want to do that for everything, but you might want to do that for more of the critical systems.”
A horn and strobe attached to the system can also be particularly effective.
“For instance, let’s say a walk-in cooler door was left open for more than five minutes and you didn’t have it in stocking mode. You might have an audible alert and a light go off to let you know that the temperature has gone above a certain point. That’s fairly common,” he said.
Site Supervisor can also be configured for retailers to receive emails and text messages when something is askew. And if a retailer subscribes to Emerson’s ProAct Services, there are even more benefits —including a technician able to perform a variety of maintenance and repair services to the system.
“On a basic level, that [technician] is calling someone or calling multiple people as defined by the retailer,” said O’Donoghue. “On another level, they’re connecting to the store and trying to do some triage on the store to understand what’s going on a little better. And [yet] another level is to connect to the store, interrogate it, do some triage, and then call a service provider on behalf of the retailer.”
PEACE OF MIND
Ryan Krebs, director of foodservice at York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Farm Stores, has been an Emerson customer for years. The convenience store retailer uses Emerson’s E2 system along with a technician tool that can view settings one site at a time with limited alarm capabilities.
“We just use a basic system that monitors our refrigeration and freezer units electronically. If something is out of temp, they will give the store a call to alert us,” said Krebs. “We take temperatures aggressively — every three hours. Sometimes, we’ll see a unit going out of temp before they even call us. It’s a basic monitoring system that we use, but it’s been very effective for us.”
For a chain as large as Rutter’s — which has 83 stores in Pennsylvania and Maryland — a monitoring system affords the retailer peace of mind that in addition to its store-level employees checking regularly, a digital backup is in place to monitor temperatures.
“It will notify us of things being out of range so that we don’t lose product and can get on-site and fix the problem,” said Krebs. “There’s certainly huge value to that, especially when you have freezers and refrigeration units the size we do, with the size of inventories inside of them.
“We have been working with Emerson for a long time and add monitoring to all our new stores,” he continued. “It gives us a good safety net for the monitoring procedures we already have in place. Having levels of safety when it comes to food holding is always a priority.”
Energy efficiency is another key component of a monitoring system’s value.
“These systems typically save energy, which directly affects the bottom line,” O’Donoghue said.