Not too many years ago, you couldn’t walk into a supermarket and expect to buy prepared, ready-to-eat foods. Now, however, it’s common to find sushi, tacos, hot dogs and more complex dishes being served up at delis, in buffet lines, and at sit-down restaurants inside well-known grocery retailers such as Costco, Wegmans, and Whole Foods. Some Whole Foods outlets have restaurants offering hot meals, along with beer and wine service. Wegmans has offered full-service pubs since 2009. Half of the 7-Eleven stores being opened today do not sell gas, but they do offer sit-down food services. The National Restaurant Association calls such places “retail-host restaurants,” meaning those eateries increasingly showing up inside supermarkets, convenience stores and other venues. In 2015, their sales totaled about $28 billion and are only expected to increase. Along with this growth in popularity comes an increase in foodborne illnesses. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), outbreaks linked to supermarkets more than doubled between 2014 and 2015. Salmonella was the most common culprit behind these outbreaks, followed by norovirus. One major problem these in-store food retailers face is turnover, meaning that staff members are likely to come and go even faster than traditional restaurants and therefore are less likely to be thoroughly and consistently trained in food safety protocols. Pests can also present a particular problem since big-box stores, where retail-host restaurants are sometimes located, usually have more access points and are open for longer hours than a more traditional, stand-alone restaurant outlet. As a result, some food industry groups are increasing food safety training regimes for their employees. According to a Sept. 8 Wall Street Journal story, “The International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association has logged 6,465 completed online food-safety courses taken by grocery workers through the end of August, up from a total of 2,987 for all of 2015.” Retailers are expected to continue adding prepared food items to their offerings because they attract customers and offer solid profit margins. NACS, or The Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing, noted this relatively bright outlook in a recent magazine article targeted to its members. “We see a ton of revenue to be made in fresh, prepared food as long as the retailer can differentiate from competitors and connect with customers,” said Stephan Mecklenburg, the group’s research coordinator.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)