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How will c-store foodservice rebound post-pandemic? 

As the country gets back to business (and school), Jeff Dover, president of fsSTRATEGY, shares 8 best practices for welcoming back hungry customers

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Foodservice is an increasingly important segment in convenience stores.  The impact of COVID-19 restrictions surrounding foodservice has been devastating for many foodservice operators.  As convenience store foodservice is almost exclusively eaten off-site, the impact on stores allowed to remain open has been relatively minimal.  However, foodservice at convenience stores must change to ensure continued success. 

  1. Customer comfort

Most consumers are eager to return to their normal lifestyles as lockdown restrictions are eased and eating food away from home is no exception.  The key to success will be having sanitation and safety practices for guests and employees visibly in place for those less comfortable with convenience store foodservice.  Word of mouth of such practices will result in more people comfortable with using your foodservice offerings.  Being known as “doing things right post-COVID-19” will help.  

2. Masks

Staff preparing and serving food should wear masks. Masks reduce the spread of pathogens from the wearer to others. Instead of plain masks, customize masks that are appropriate for your store (logos, patterns, etc.).  Staff could wear a button with a picture of their faces to provide some personalization, as hiding faces behind masks is counter-intuitive to service culture. Masks with smiles also allow this key aspect of service. 

 3. Wash and sanitize hands 

Prior to serving any food, staff should wash and sanitize their hands (and do so visibly in front of the customer).  Even though we are recommending that staff sanitize hands prior to service, food should not be touched.  Serving utensils should always be used and sanitized regularly.  

 4. No self-service

Ensure that all food is served by an employee.  Other than packaged foods, customers should not be self-serving. Unfortunately, this includes self-service of beverages—to the extent coffee, fountain and frozen drinks are served, machines will have to be moved behind the counter, at least initially. Quick service restaurants are also adapting to this change.  Despite a pre-COVID-19 move away from single-use cups, refillable beverage programs should also be discontinued.  Restrictions on self-service beverages and food will likely be lifted over time.

 5. Reconfiguring the foodservice area

Foodservice spaces need to be reconfigured to ensure proper social distancing is possible.  If not already in place, floor markings for those waiting to order and pay for their food, as well as direction of travel floor indicators, are recommended.

 6. Condiment stations

Similar to beverage stations, condiment stations will be eliminated, at least in the short term.  Cream, sugar, etc. for coffee should be provided and stirred by an employee. Other condiments, such as, ketchup, mustard, relish and hot sauce should be kept in individual packaged servings and provided by the employee with the food.  Employees should wash and sanitize their hands prior to handling the condiments. 

Condiments are more expensive individually packaged than in bulk. Employees tend to over-provide condiments to customers.  I recommend having employees confirm the number of condiments needed with the customer. 

 7. Menu selection

For the most part, food sold at convenience stores should be hand held.  Most convenience stores do not have a dining area. Menus should focus on food that can be eaten on the go.

The menu should also consider food that holds well.  It is important that food is prepared in batches that are likely to be sold before the quality deteriorates.  While prepared-to-order food and self-selecting of ingredients is becoming increasingly popular in foodservice operations, it does not work in convenience stores where employees are not dedicated to foodservice and must also focus on cashier and stocking duties.  Items should be easy to serve quickly.  Speed of service is important.

 8. Quality control

As mentioned, foodservice at convenience stores should hold well and be easily and quickly served.  However, it is important that quality is not compromised.  Customers will not return if they are served food that has deteriorated in quality or is not served at the correct temperature.  To be successful, food should be prepared in batches based on expected demand.  Forecasting demand is key.  Over-producing food that has to be discarded (and food should be discarded when quality deteriorates) is costly.  Similarly, you don’t want to lose sales if food is not ready when needed.

Food safety is also important.  Food should not be held in the “danger zone” of between 4.5 degrees and 60 degrees Celsius where bacteria grows at a rapid rate.  Temperatures of coolers and food in steam tables, etc. should be checked and logged regularly to ensure safety.

 

Screen Shot 2020-07-14 at 4.19.10 PMfsSTRATEGY is a consulting firm specializing in strategic advisory services for the hospitality industry, with an emphasis on food and beverage. Jeff Dover is based in Toronto and can be reached at 416-229-2290 ext. 2 or jdover@fsstrategy.com. 

This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Convenience Store News Canada. 


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Quebec makes masks mandatory in public indoor spaces starting Saturday

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Quebec has become the first Canadian province to make mask-wearing mandatory in all indoor public places for people aged 12 years and older.
Premier Francois Legault said the new directive enters into effect Saturday – just in time for the province’s annual construction holiday.
Businesses will be expected to enforce the new rules and are subject to fines of between $400 and $6,000 if their customers are caught violating the health directive, Legault told reporters Monday in Montreal.
He said the government is considering imposing fines on individuals beginning in August. People who for medical reasons cannot wear masks are exempt from the new rule, Legault added.
The premier said his government held off making mask-wearing indoors mandatory until now because it wanted to impose restrictions on Quebecers gradually. The new rules enter into effect July 18, at the beginning of the two-week construction holiday, during which Quebecers are expected to travel around the province with their families.
“It’s easier to wear a mask than to return to being confined,” Legault said, adding the province has seen a slight increase in the number of daily new COVID-19 cases.
“I know it’s summer,” he said. “It’s holidays. It’s not fun to wear a mask, but it’s essential to avoid going backwards.”
Quebec reported 100 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, as well as one additional death. That brings the province’s total deaths to 5,628, while infections reached 56,621. Hospitalizations declined by one to 305, with 21 people in intensive care.
Legault said the new rule applies in all indoor settings across the province, including restaurants – but only when patrons are moving around.
“When we are sitting down, when we are at a table, we can take it off,” he said. “But when we get up to use the bathroom or to leave, we put it back on.”
Groups representing business owners raised concerns about the responsibility of enforcing the measure, suggesting it places an additional burden on retailers who are already struggling.
In a statement, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said that while business owners respect the need to limit a second wave of the pandemic, “public health is a shared responsibility.”
“To ask a small business to be entirely responsible for consumer actions, which are beyond its reasonable control, and to impose fines doesn’t seem very equitable,” said Gopinath Jeyabalaratnam, a policy analyst for the group.
The Conseil du Patronat du Quebec, which represents employers, said responsibility should be shared between clients and business owners, and called on the government to emphasize education rather than fines.
Legault said it was necessary to rely on businesses because “police cannot be in all the shops at the same time.” He said enforcement would likely begin with warnings and progress to fines.
As for retail or restaurant workers who are confronted with recalcitrant customers, Legault said they should call police.
On Monday, mask-wearing also became mandatory inside public transit across the province. At the entrance to Montreal’s St-Laurent subway station, however, there was little evidence anything had changed.
Around noon, there were no employees or prominent signs indicating the new rules as transit users, some wearing masks and some not, came in and out through the turnstiles.
Masks were more in evidence as rush hour began, and an announcement could be heard over the loudspeaker informing transit users of the measure.
The province has granted transit users a two-week grace period before people can be denied boarding for failing to wear a face covering. Legault said he expected a similar period would also be granted to allow the public to get used to the wider rule before fines are imposed.


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Handling pandemic-related stress

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Like it or not, we’re learning to function in pandemic times. But despite the many positive efforts made by retailers to improve the health and safety of their staff, employees are still anxious—and front-line workers like in-store staff are especially so.

To explore the pandemic’s ongoing impact in the workplace, human resources technology leader ADP Canada and Angus Reid launched a series of surveys starting in April that revealed 42% of front-line employees felt pressured to go into work during the pandemic (particularly those aged 18 to 34). Furthermore, only 27% of retail/foodservice/hospitality sector employees said they were getting additional mental health resources.

Andrea Wynter, head of human resources at ADP Canada, says the heightened anxiety doesn’t surprise her. “In addition to uncertainty around the pandemic itself, grocery workers are suddenly an essential service,” she says. “They can’t work at home and they’re exposing themselves and putting their families at risk by providing this essential service every day.”

Wynter predicts that as the labour market starts to return to normal, employees will be approaching potential job opportunities with a different lens. “Did they [companies] put their employees first during COVID-19 and will they have my best interests at heart is something they’ll be thinking about more than ever,” she explains. “Those who did will be seen as top-tier employers, even if they’re paying less.”

Here are some strategies that can help employees feel secure and supported, especially in these unprecedented times.

KEEP ON COMMUNICATING
Even months into the pandemic, staff need and appreciate regular updates, says Wynter. “It’s not only about keeping them informed on the situation and the business, but about how you’re going to protect them and what will happen if they get sick,” she says.

Save-On-Foods established a COVID-19 Task Force, committed to dealing with staff queries. “Management and team members can access either a dedicated COVID-19 telephone line or email address if they have any concerns amid the pandemic,” says Heidi Ferriman, vice-president, people & communications. Not only have staff been regularly consulted on how to best enhance their health and safety, she says they’ve provided valuable feedback as “we worked through updating our existing standard operating procedures and developing new ones.”

MAKE MENTAL HEALTH PART OF THE DISCUSSION
In addition to making mental health resources readily available to staff, make talking about mental health a “normal” thing, says Sarah Chamberlin, vice-president marketing and donor experience at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). She says managers and other leaders who are more open and honest about their own experiences can help to normalize conversations around mental health. “It’s OK to say, ‘today is a tough day and I’m not liking it,’ and by sharing that experience, your staff will be more willing to share theirs.”

Organizations like CAMH have a wealth of free tools online, including tips on how to talk to front-line staff, including grocery workers.

THINK OUTSIDE THE FRONT LINES
While these are challenging times for staff in grocery stores, pandemic pressures are hitting head office staff pretty hard too, especially those who have been working from home for months on end. According to the ADP Workplace Insights surveys, 27% of remote workers said they were too busy to take breaks and 24% struggle with managing their mental health.

“This is a new reality [of working] for many and means setting up their homes so they can be productive while creating boundaries between work and life,” says Liz Volk, chief human resources officer at Longo’s. She says the company made sure to survey staff to find out what issues were top of mind and how to make things work better. “Part of that included consistent schedules, getting breaks when they can and taking the time to refresh.”

CELEBRATE THE WINS
“Our customers are showing their support by posting signs on our windows, delivering coffee and other treats to the store teams, and making our stores a stop on their vehicle parades in support of essential workers,” says Save-On-Foods’ Ferriman. “We created a page on our internal team member site dedicated to celebrating and sharing these wins and messages of encouragement so that our team members can see how valued they are by their customers and communities.”

At Longo’s, Volk says there is a similar push to share positive feedback from customers coming in via social media and the customer care centre. “Sharing good news helps people stay positive,” she says. The company also provided a financial boost (a $2 hourly increase to all hourly employees and one week of additional pay for those on salary until the end of June) to reward staff commitment and passion. “Showing appreciation of our teams, especially those who have stuck it out on the front lines, has worked out really well,” says Volk.

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF OUTSIDE RESOURCES
You don’t have to do it alone. Lean on the expertise of service partners in your communities and encourage staff to do the same. Save-On-Foods’ Ferriman says her company’s employee assistance program has been a godsend during the pandemic, providing staff and their families with health and wellness resources, including 24/7 counselling support. “We recognized through this pandemic the importance of reminding our team members of the tools and benefits that they have access to,” she says. “We also created a new COVID-19 resource page on our team member website giving our teams easy access to any support resources they may need.”

This article appeared in the June/July issue of Canadian Grocer.


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Canadians’ pandemic purchase insights: StatsCan

New report examines what products Canadians have been purchasing to prepare for the pandemic

Screen Shot 2020-04-13 at 3.25.57 PMGrocery store sales increased dramatically in March as consumers stocked up on supplies including toilet paper, rice and flour in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak.

During the second week of March–when the federal government outlined its $1-billion COVID-19 response fund and the World Health Organization declared the virus a global pandemic–grocery sales increased 38% compared to average sales in 2019, according to new data from Statistics Canada.

The study, titled Canadian Consumers Prepare for COVID-19, examines consumer purchasing patterns using sales and transaction data on grocery products up to the week ending March 14. The grocery sales increase represents 16% higher revenues than those reported in the week leading up to the December holiday, the busiest shopping week of the year.

Increasingly, Canadians have turned to canned goods, dry goods and non-perishable food items to stock their pantries. Rice saw the biggest gains (239%) followed by pasta (205%) canned vegetables (180%) and flour (179%).

While staples such as eggs, butter and bread reported increased revenues in the second week of March alongside fresh foods such as potatoes and meat, “the sales for these perishables increased by a substantially smaller magnitude, suggesting a consumer focus on stockpiling against uncertain conditions,” the report suggests.

Toilet paper sales reached a peak increase of 241% relative to the 2019 average, despite reassurances from government and bathroom tissue makers that supply was safe.

“Bathroom tissue sales, which received extensive media coverage, only began to rise significantly in the first week of March shortly after Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu advised Canadians to be prepared with a week’s worth of supplies,” the study says.

Hand sanitizer, mask and glove sales saw increases as early as the last week of January, when the first known case of COVID-19 was reported in North America, increasing 477% and 122%, respectively, and rose to 639% and 377% by the second week of March.

Statistics Canada said it would update the study in the coming weeks. You can view the current report here.

Originally published at Canadian Grocer.