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With foodservice as its focal point, Sheetz Inc., a 309-unit convenience store operator based in Altoona, Pa., has always placed a high priority on food safety.
That emphasis has never been stronger than now -- roughly a year after the chain and its now-defunct supplier, Coronet Foods, made headlines when individuals from eight states were sickened after eating Roma tomatoes served at Sheetz stores.
"Now that we know this can happen to us, that it can happen to anyone, our food safety awareness has increased," said Mike Magner, director of quality assurance and safety for Sheetz. "It's brought everyone's awareness level up."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced the tainted produce to a Florida packing house. Food inspectors said Coronet and Sheetz did nothing wrong, but can still be held liable because they supplied and prepared the tomatoes.
Although there's nothing Sheetz could have done to avoid such an incident, Magner said, the company has since enhanced its foodservice quality assurance and safety procedures.
The New Plan
Sheetz stores offer a menu of made-to-order subs, sandwiches and salads, which are ordered through touch-screen order point terminals. While the company is continuing with some efforts it already had in place, including vendor and store audits, it has strengthened the way in which it audits it stores.
Previously, the chain performed three types of store audits -- one done quarterly by an outside firm, another done internally, also on a quarterly basis, and a secret shopper program done about six times a year, according to Magner.
Beginning this January, Sheetz eliminated the external audit and now has eight quality assurance and safety specialists on staff who make unannounced visits to each store a minimum of two times per quarter. The quality assurance specialists -- all ex-store managers -- spend about a half-day per store looking at everything from food safety and OSHA safety to cleanliness, operations, marketing and merchandising.
The chain also still maintains its secret shopper program, which Magner said focuses more on customer service, food quality and general cleanliness.
By performing all store audits internally, the chain has better control over what to watch for, especially procedures and requirements exclusive to Sheetz.
"They don't know our business like we do," Magner said of outside firms.
The internal auditors can also spend a lot more time in the stores, and if a particular store isn't scoring well, they'll make extra visits to coach and train the employees there. This can't be done by an outside company, Magner said, adding that now, "instead of just going in and writing up deficiences, we can stay and help correct the problems."
Sheetz still contracts with a third party to do its vendor audits, checking for food safety and security issues, among other things, and instituted a new questionnaire to be used as a screening tool for any potential new vendors.
Lastly, the chain has taken a more timely approach to the way it handles customer concerns about food safety. Now, one employee is charged with fielding and responding to the calls, whereas before, several people were in the mix.
Also, all calls are returned immediately, even on nights and weekends. Before, they might have waited until Monday morning to return a weekend call.
"It's a much more detailed process," Magner added.
Overall, he said the enhancements Sheetz implemented have resulted in the chain becoming an even better foodservice provider, which is their number one goal.
"Foodservice is the focus for the company," Magner said. "We want to be known as a foodservice company, not a gas station."