This year’s NAG & YEO Virtual Conference kicked off Jan. 29, with “Executing a Safer Retail and Foodservice Program,” an hourlong session addressing the two core services vital to convenience store success, food and safety. The session’s trio of speakers brought expertise from different perspectives with one consistent message – don’t resist change; adapt to it.
JESSICA WILLIAMS, FOOD FORWARD THINKING
Leading off the day’s speakers, Jessica Williams, founder and CEO of c-store retail consultants Food Forward Thinking, advised c-store retailers to get used to the “new normal” created by the world pandemic.
“This is not a short-term thing,” she said, “it’s going to be a long-term thing.” Williams said that many of the changes foodservice operations have had to make will likely become permanent – things like prepackaged plastic cutlery, salt and pepper packets instead of shakers, accurate menu labels, clean aprons for staff and more handwashing.
Retailers, she said, should revisit their foodservice planograms, adding that innovation is more important now than ever. “Innovation in your store, and in your food program in particular, demonstrates competence and service,” Williams said. “You’re showing your customers that you still care what they’re in your stores for.”
She wrapped up her presentation advising that stores update their human resources policies to reflect the importance of staff in providing safe and quality products. Team members, she said, are still heroes to the operation.
JOY ALMEKIES, GLOBAL PARTNERS
With more than two decades of experience in the convenience industry, Joy Almekies, senior director of food services for Global Partners 75 Alltown stores across the Northeast U.S., views the pandemic’s disruption as creating an avenue for the convenience industry to improve.
“I looked at the COVID almost as an opportunity for our industry to take a deep dive into what we should be doing and looking at it within our food service programs,” said Alkemies.
She also dialed in on how the COVID-19 pandemic has altered long-accepted c-store foodservice ideas about packaging, propelling them forward for the better.
“The biggest thing that has changed our world is packaging,” she said. So many of the changes brought about by the pandemic’s disruption revolve around packaging. The result is food packaging that greatly improves its duel functions, presentation and safety, while also pushing retailers to deliver an even fresher product via more sustainable materials like compostable trays and corn-based containers.
Fresh and hot food hold times are now shorter. Sampling is still possible with the right containers. She cited new containers made of a polystyrene that actually becomes more transparent the warmer the food product is, giving consumers confidence in the items inside.
“Show people how beautiful the food is,” stressed Almekies.
She warned, though, not to overlook training and reinvesting in c-store team members. Make it easy for them to do the job properly, maintaining safety protocols, with things like clear SOPs, recipes, providing hard-copy reference guides and a video library of preparation procedures.
“Food safety is every day at Global Partners,” Almekies asserted. That’s how it should be across the convenience industry.
GUS OLYMPIDIS, FAMILY EXPRESS
Family Express President and CEO Gus Olympidis closed the day’s session with wise words about being flexible when it comes to change. Store operators simply must be willing to adapt to the pandemic’s disruption, advised Olympidis, whose Valparaiso, Ind.-based chain operates 80 stores across that state.
“Generally speaking, practicing change is something we’ve done over the years, just out of the need for survival,” Olympidis related. “But this one was a big one.”
He talked of the company’s new bakery operation that was on the verge of its unveiling when COVID-19 brought about widespread change to the way the industry carried out its foodservice business.
“And COVID almost instantaneously created an environment whereby the bakery became essentially irrelevant,” said Olympidis, “because open case serving and open case delivery simply were not applicable in an environment where there’s sensitivity about touch and contamination.”
Staff at the chain’s new bakery operation were forced to pivot – and do it quickly. Within three weeks, Olympidis’ Family Express team reinvented the bakery from an open case operation to an all-packaged bakery.
He stressed that touchpoints are the most threatening fear of consumers and staff alike in way of spreading the novel coronavirus. The consumer’s sensitivity, he said, has pivoted to concern about touch that demands an all-package offering.
Family Express also began using a very thin tissue paper to serve as a barrier between its customers and any and every touchpoint at its stores. The little blue tissue paper dispensers stand guard at each entry door, gasoline nozzle, ATM screen or keypad, food ordering kiosk – anywhere a customer needs to touch a hard surface.
“If you think about it, we didn’t have time to train anyone. We didn’t have time to communicate extensively,” said Olympidis. “We just literally made this solution available. And the consumer responded immediately, and that implies sensitivity to touch and fear about one’s health.”
Olympidis also talked of precautions taken at Family Express’ corporate office and of how individual space needs to be treated with a degree of sensitivity and respect. How doors are propped open to avoid grabbing handles and possibly spreading the virus.
Being willing and able to adapt and change – and not resist – served Family Express well in responding to a world pandemic that has left a swath of disruption throughout the foodservice and retail industries.
The 2020 NAG/YEO Virtual Conference continues on Wednesday, Aug. 5, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time, with a session on “Data Privacy Requirements: What Convenience Stores Need to Know.” For the entire eight-session agenda and to register, visit https://nagconvenience.com/virtual-series-agenda/ .