By Erin Rigik, associate editor.
Martin Eagle Oil Co. knows first hand the financial and general frustrations convenience store operators can feel after losing a freezer full of products due to compressor issues. That’s why it was quick to get in on a pilot program to help test Heartland Payment Systems’ SmartLink Food Safety Monitoring service.
“When Heartland Payment Systems told me they were going to come up with this program, I was as excited as I could be because we had lost the compressors at least twice previously and lost a lot of merchandise simply because nobody recognized that the temperature had risen to dangerous levels inside our walk-in freezer,” said Bill Meek, comptroller for Martin Eagle’s 33 convenience stores.
To prevent the problem from reoccurring, the company added the Food Safety Monitoring system to the walk-in freezer at its Martin Eagle store in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
When a compressor shuts off, “it’s really difficult for employees—unless they’re going into that freezer—or even customers to notice, and it doesn’t take more than an hour for the temperature to rise to where things start thawing,” Meek said.
While a typical icebox can lose power and still keep things frozen for several hours, in a big walk-in freezer everything thaws out fast. “We carry a lot of ice cream, for example, and it doesn’t take long for ice cream to start thawing and be completely ruined,” Meek said.
The SmartLink Food Safety Monitoring is a cloud-based temperature monitoring solution that ensures greater efficiencies, more control over the quality and freshness of food being served, and access to detailed reports to help protect food quality for their customers and their businesses while meeting Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) guidelines.
This continuous monitoring and recording of cold storage and preparation equipment is intended to help convenience store operators analyze performance and identify degrading equipment before a complete failure occurs, potentially saving thousands of dollars in inventory and emergency service calls. Because cold storage and preparation equipment typically accounts for at least 30% of a convenience store’s energy costs, according to Heartland, the continuous temperature monitoring enables operators to better maintain safe temperatures by using as little energy as possible.
Martin Eagle, a multi-branded marketer of motor fuel products, has been testing the SmartLink solution at its c-stores for well over a year—the entire time Heartland was developing and tweaking the solution to maximize its benefits.
“This has been a learning process for everyone involved,” Meek said. “Heartland had to come up with the right temperature gauge and reporting device that was as inexpensive as possible, so they were testing many different types of devices, and then they started working more on the software side of the system.”
The SmartLink Food Safety Monitoring solution also helps ensure compliance with the Food Modernization Act of 2011. The law requires more frequent inspections and that food facilities have a written plan outlining possible problem areas and steps the facility could take to prevent these issues. The solution gives c-store operators immediate access to reliable data regarding the storage and preparation equipment temperatures whenever it is required.
When Heartland first began testing the solution, Martin Eagle would follow along online by tracking a real-time graph that confirmed everything was working properly with its freezer. “I’d typically get an email showing me what had transpired over the previous 24 hours,” Meek said.
Next, Heartland added email alerts, also in real time, if problems had occurred. Today, Heartland has added text alerts when the temperature in the freezer exceeds a set point over a certain period of time allowing store employees and managers to take immediate action.
“We need to know as soon as possible so the alerts are extremely important,” said Meek, who at presstime was planning to sign up for text message alerts for the first time.
But monitoring the giant walk-in freezer was not without challenges. “With this particular freezer, when it defrosts, it will very briefly get up to 40 degrees and it does that four times a day. So you don’t want to get four alerts every time you’re in a defrosting cycle,” Meek said. “We want an alert if after about 30 minutes it has reached 32 degrees, or reached 25 degrees and stayed there. So we had to work out some features in the program where now it has to be above that 25 degrees for 30 minutes before it will alert me with a text.”
Now that the pilot and developmental period have concluded and Heartland has officially rolled out its SmartLink solution, Meek expects to add it at other stores as well. Of Martin Eagle’s 33 stores, some are company operated and others are leased to franchisees.
“This is the only store I have that has a walk-in freezer, but all of our other stores have coolers, of course, so there is a good chance we’ll roll it out at a number of the stores. Some coolers only have one compressor, so we’ll definitely want it in those units,” Meek said. “Other cooler boxes are bigger and there are two compressors in it, so it’s not as critical. Typically you’ll find people going in and out of a cooler box more than a freezer, so a freezer is more critical.”
While Martin Eagle doesn’t have any stores with a beer cave, Meek said if he did he would “definitely want SmartLink monitoring going on in there given how important beer sales are.”
Like at many small chains, Meek wears many hats, working in operations, accounting, IT, office management and customer service, too. His position gives him a unique look at the demands of the c-store business. “It’s great to learn about these solutions because they fill a real and immediate need at our stores,” he said. “We’ve always had to rely on the staff to notice if a compressor had gone out, but now we can seamlessly take them out of the equation and actually be much more efficient, and I think that’s what everyone in this industry is looking for: anything that can take some of the burden off of the employees to free them up to provide great customer service. It is the ultimate win-win for everyone involved.”