Step aside live cooking stations. The new theatrical thrill in retail foodservice is watching people clean. While food safety has always been top of mind for grocers, more recently, it’s become a crucial part of the in-store deli and prepared foods experience.
“One interesting twist [as a result of COVID-19] is that staff used to make an effort to shield customers from seeing cleaning protocols,” says Chris Boyles, VP of food safety for Steritech, a Rentokil company, that is based in Charlotte, N.C., and provides food safety and operational assessments, auditing and consulting solutions. “Cleaning chemicals were kept behind the counter and treatment was usually restricted to slower hours. Now, businesses are purposefully putting it in customer view to help them have confidence in all the many steps being taken to protect the health of customers and employees.”
At Walt Churchill’s Market, an upscale grocer with two locations in greater Toledo, Ohio, safety protocols have top billing. Before its website was populated with mouthwatering photos of WCM macaroni salad, killer brownies and store-made spicy peach salsa, but now the grocer boldly conveys its “coronavirus response” with messaging and graphics from Ohio Grocers Association mandating facial coverings for shoppers and employees.
“Our stores had to act quickly to do our part with hoping to stop the spread of COVID-19,” says Justin Glover, VP, perishable foods for Walt Churchill’s. “We worked diligently on putting social distancing in place for the safety of our customers and employees.”
In addition to its website communications, Walt Churchill’s pens a letter each week that is posted in-store and on social media to keep customers and employees informed. It also makes regular live announcements over the stores’ PA systems to convey safety measures, such as mask requirements.
Beyond social distancing stickers placed six feet apart on the floor, making masks mandatory, erecting barriers around registers and service counters, and installing sanitation stations around the store, the grocer also had to rethink the compatibility of its foodservice offerings with social distancing guidelines.
“We did have [self-serve] hot and cold bar at the stores, and they were big sales opportunities,” says Glover, who adds that the suspension of the bars has been the biggest disappointment to its customers. “We are looking at other ways to offer this service,” continues Glover, who believes maintaining the bar with an employee appears to be its best option for reopening these in-store services.
“We have started prepping more options cold packed and have seen a significant lift in those sales,” he adds. “We have also started a new grab-and-go chef sections with newly prepared dinners that have been a big hit for us.”
In addition to the regular cleanings conducted by staff, Walt Churchill’s has hired an outside crew to thoroughly clean its stores once a week. “Our competitive advantage is that we are still taking the time to clean carts and such, where we see the competition leaving bottles and towels out for customers to do [it],” he says.
A Taste for Transparency
COVID-19 has also heightened consumer concern around food safety and transparency. A new Transparency Trends Report from Label Insight and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), which surveyed more than 1,000 omnichannel grocery shoppers across the U.S., revealed a growing distrust in brands and institutions amplified by COVID-19-related health and safety concerns.
The report found that product transparency is important to 81% of shoppers, and 62% consider a brand to be transparent if it provides a complete list of ingredients.
“Product transparency is increasingly important to consumers across all categories, whether it’s an item they eat, drink or put on their bodies,” says Tim Whiting, VP of marketing for Label Insight in Chicago. “Grab-and-go offerings are no exception, and the lines are blurring here as more grocery retailers are providing prepared options for their shoppers to meet their needs and drive up basket size.”
While the Transparency Trends report shows a large majority of shoppers prefer going in-store to select fresh options such as grab-and-go items, consumers are now trying to cut down on their time spent in-store due to the coronavirus pandemic, and they’re going online to research their options ahead of time.
“What this all means is that online product search is becoming more of a cornerstone for all forms of grocery shopping and retail foodservice,” notes Whiting. “If a retailer can’t reassure a consumer online by successfully guiding their search and providing the right details on a product, then the consumer isn’t going to come in-store to buy it.”
If there’s a bright spot for foodservice operators during COVID-19, it’s that there is no evidence the virus is transmitted through food, Hilary Thesmar, head of food product safety for FMI in Washington, D.C. , told WGB early in the pandemic. “While this particular virus is more contagious than we’re used to, it’s also easy to destroy,” she says.
“COVID-19 is destroyed by the same protocols we’ve always used for food contact surfaces. A thorough wash with detergent, rinse and sanitize will get rid of it,” affirms Boyles of Steritech.
The challenge for grocery workers assigned to cleaning duties, says Boyles, is that in some cases, foodservice areas need to be disinfected differently than nonfood surfaces.
“Staff’s attention is now more divided because they also have to clean and disinfect common touch points (e.g., door handles in the freezer), and they must be treated differently since they are difficult to wash, rinse and sanitize. These types of surfaces require treatment more frequently and with new chemicals that have been brought on site specifically to destroy the virus.
“Usually, those chemicals cannot be used on food contact surfaces, so processes must be put into place to think about separation,” he continues. “We frequently remind staff about the very serious dangers—potentially lethal dangers—of mixing different chemicals, for example, chlorine disinfectants with quat sanitizers.”
Same Rules, Different Game
As the pandemic wears on, and retail foodservice staff remain hyper-focused on COVID-19 safety measures, day-to-day protocols may not receive the same attention they once did, Boyles cautions.
“One other unexpected challenge is that regulators have temporarily suspended almost all regular inspections of food facilities while they devote all their resources to COVID-19 issues,” he says. “Without the support and reminders provided by a regular cadence of inspections, the focus on food safety practices could lapse.”
Keep in mind that the rules of food safety haven’t changed, he adds. Lack of regular handwashing, cross-contamination and time/temperature control (hot and cold holding, cooking, cooling and reheating) remain the biggest risks.
To help manage the plethora of protocols brought about by COVID-19, Steritech offers a COVID-19 Protocol Check and Food Safety Assessment, which addresses a range of issues such as employee hygiene practices; identifying the symptoms of COVID-19 and how to manage suspected or confirmed cases; availability and use of appropriate disinfectants; effective customer signage; and verification that the entire team is trained on all protocols.
Tools of the Trade
Making employee and customer safety the No. 1 priority takes time. Social distancing, cleaning areas between shoppers and one-way aisles are slowing the process. And shoppers are also making fewer trips to the store, prompting stock-up visits. This presents a unique opportunity for retail foodservice, says Jeffrey Gayer, president and CEO of CMC Group, Inc., including DayMark Safety Systems in Bowling Green, Ohio.
“Many operators are planning for the average customer visit inside the store to take longer, and they are harnessing that opportunity to communicate their brand message and engage the customer safely,” he says. “Longer store visits by consumers supported by aggressive in-store messaging should drive grab-and-go sales to record levels.”
DayMark sees its grocery partners moving toward automation initiatives for food safety labeling and temperature monitoring. The company has developed two new additions to its MenuCommand suite of kitchen automation apps, including the DayMark Receiving Module, which gives operators the ability to track received shipments of goods, and Task Management, which allows foodservice managers to oversee task activity from a centralized location.
“These apps feature components that track the health status of team members and delivery drivers in order ensure facility safety,” says Jill Carte, DayMark director of product development.
Four Steps to Safer Foodservice
The FDA offers guidelines for maintaining a food safety management system, which strongly correlates to less risk of causing foodborne illness, says Chris Boyles, VP of food safety for Steritech, a Rentokil company. Boyles recommends following four protocols for food safety management:
1. Have written procedures in place to ensure every location in the chain can execute consistently.
2. Make sure everyone is trained on all the procedures relevant to the job so that they are set up for success.
3. Assign someone to actively monitor implementation of the procedures from handwashing to checking for cross-contamination and consistent temperature control management.
4. Documenting the previous steps to ensure they get done.