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Home-Cooked Goodness

By Maureen Azzato

"Hogwash." "Ridiculous." "I think they’re wrong!"

That’s what many convenience operators with successful from-scratch foodservice programs say to critics who fear these programs can be wrought with food safety issues — especially if raw meat is handled — not to mention the risk of recipe and execution inconsistency.

While many from-scratch operators can’t imagine running their foodservice any other way, few argue that these programs require vigorous training and controls to ensure proper food handling and safety. "There are concerns, but a lot of fast feeders use fresh chicken too. If they can do it, why can’t we? You just have to put the emphasis on it and have the proper systems in place," said Rick Be­uning, vice president of foodservice operations for Double Quick Inc., a 42-store chain based in Indianola, Mis­sissippi. "You also have to be committed to foodservice and food safety." That involves ServSafe training for all store and deli managers, and food handling training for anyone that touches food, he said. "Food safety is emphasized as much in our proprie­tary locations as it is in our branded stores," added Beuning, who manages 19 proprietary Hot & Crispy Chicken & Seafood, 12 Church’s Chicken, two Krystal, one Krispy Krunchy and two Pizza Pro locations.

"We have thermometers on all the frying equipment to make sure chicken is cooked to temperature. And there are temperature probes on our cases to con­tinuously check and monitor holding temperatures," he added.

However, some foodservice direc­tors with from-scratch fried chicken programs, such as Chad Prast, are more nervous about handling raw chicken. For years Prast ran Village Pantry’s foodservice in the Midwest and recently was named foodservice director for the entire VPS Conve­nience Store Group owned by Sun Capital Partners, which, through var­ious acquisitions, operates 392 stores under the Village Pantry, Scotchman, Young’s, Li’l Cricket and Next Door store brands.

"Sanitation is an area we are going to focus on heavily this year," he said. "I can okay bringing raw meat into the stores as long as there are strong con­trols, which means maintaining accu­rate time and temperature logs and log­ging when chicken comes in, when it gets fried, and when it goes to the hold­ing case."

VPS food programs vary greatly among their brands, and even stores, with 40 Village Pantry units in the Midwest and 11 Scotchman and Young’s stores in the Southeast serving fried chicken from scratch. The remaining VPS stores have considerable foodser­vice as well — including 100 stores with bakery and 135 serving sandwiches — but the offers are not from-scratch.

Scotchman leads the way in home­made food at 10 of its 100-plus stores, with signature fresh Southern-style fried chicken, homemade biscuits, macaroni and cheese, cobbler and some cakes.

Northern and Pacific Fried
If you think these programs can only succeed in the South, you’re wrong. Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes in upstate New York is known for fried haddock, which comes to the stores raw where it is breaded and fried.

For the most part, Jack Cushman, ex­ecutive president of the 85-store chain’s foodservice programs, is not a fan of food that requires a lot of preparation and handling at the store level. In fact, fried haddock is the only made-from­scratch item on the chain’s extensive foodservice menu. "This is a local favorite dish," Cushman said. "It comes in pre-portioned and fresh, and we bread it and fry it as a weekend deal." Regarding concerns about contamination or food-borne illness, Cushman added, "The fish is fried so there is not much living through that." Overall, however, Cushman prefers pre-cooked and pre-breaded items for a variety of reasons, including food safety, consistency and the ability to execute programs properly. "We take out as much prep at the store level as possible," he said. "We have an institu­tional menu with a QSR package around it, meaning we mostly buy menu com­ponents in large quantities that are al­ready cooked and just require heating and assembly."

In the Paci�c Northwest, Portland, Oregon-based WSCO Petroleum serves extensive from-scratch items, in �ve of its 18 stores, including fried chicken, burritos, fresh potato wedges and fried gizzards.

That’s right, chicken gizzards that are breaded and fried and adored by customers who eat the organ meats like popcorn shrimp. Interestingly, Double Quick, and VPS also have popular fried gizzard programs.

"It’s not uncommon for some of our customers to call and order two pounds of fried gizzards," said Tiki Mayï¬?eld, store manager of WSCO’s Mallala, Washington, store and a foodservice trainer. "One of our stores with a strong Hispanic customer base gets them in fresh, breads them and fries them. We get ours pre-breaded."  

Common Threads
So what do these varied and geo­graphically dispersed chains with extensive homemade foodservice pro­grams have in common besides their belief in the uniqueness of their recipes?

Each company is a steadfast user and believer in ServSafe training for all foodservice managers, store man­agers — and some assistant managers, too.

Most of those charged with leading foodservice at these companies also have restaurant or other related foodservice experience. And, their stores have lower store manager and associate turnover than the industry average.

"Several of our cooks have been with us for 10 to 15 years," said Prast of VPS, adding that the reason is that "they take ownership when they make food from scratch."

Beuning of Double Quick also has a core group of long-term employees at nearly every store, which lend his programs continuity. The chain’s turn­over is about 100 percent at the associ­ate level. "Turnover is an issue that challenges us, but it is something you get used to handling. You just have to keep on training day after day." Interestingly, Double Quick’s employee turnover is considerably lower at its proprietary food locations, where ten­ure of ï¬?ve to 10 years is the norm.

Most operators also are selective about the items they prepare from scratch to ensure they indeed have a point of differentiation. "You have to be very smart about what menu items you decide to do from scratch because it is labor intensive," WSCO’s Mayfield said. "You want to steer toward items that are fairly easy to construct and don’t take a lot of labor. And, of course, they have to sell."

WSCO’s desired gross margin on from-scratch food items is 65 percent, which has labor costs built in, versus 70 percent on pre-prepared items. The sales velocity on homemade items, how­ever, is swifter and yields considerably higher gross margin dollars. If they don’t, they are pulled from the menu.

In one instance, homemade burritos were pulled from one store but kept in another. "We stopped building scratch burritos at my store because it was too la­bor intensive and we had too much waste. The demand really fell off in the recession and was too irregular," Mayfield said, adding that at two other stores the [from-scratch] burritos sell so well that workers can’t make them fast enough.

Due to aggressive retail pricing, Dou­ble Quick’s gross margins are consider­ably tighter at 50 percent on proprietary food and 60 percent on branded con­cepts. "We’re very value driven in all of our programs and you have to be in our region," which is economically re­pressed, said Beuning.

In larger chains like VPS, flexibility allows for recipe trial and possible mi­gration from one region to another. Customers are so fond of Scotchman’s homemade biscuits in the South that Prast wants to bring the recipe to some of his Midwest stores, which currently use frozen pre-prepared dough that is thawed and baked off.

"Anything you make from scratch is 10 times better than anything you can buy frozen. The problem is, it adds labor and inconsistency," Prast cautioned. "From a quality standpoint, I’d do scratch in every store; it’s just tough" and difficult to control waste.

As a result, VPS will test instantly ­quick-frozen chicken, enabling stores to only thaw what they need for the day, bread it and fry it. "We are looking at a lot of different things to reduce waste and inconsistency," Prast said. With frozen chicken "you lose a percentage of quality, but it is so small that most people don’t notice it."

When asked why they don’t use pre-breaded or pre-prepared chicken, most of the operators respond similarly. "There are some pretty good pre-prepared fla­vored products out there, but most of the time you are buying what someone else has," Double Quick’s Beuning said. "You lose a point of difference."

And not every store has the space and facility to handle extensive prepa­ration and cooking. That’s why Double Quick stores don’t all have foodservice, and why some have proprietary pro­grams while others have branded fast food. It is nearly impossible to retrofit from-scratch programs into stores that were not originally built for foodservice and don’t have proper storage or cooking space.

"Of the 19 locations with scratch foodservice, I wish we had two that were alike," said Beuning. "Some have ample space and are big enough to han­dle the full volume of a fast-food restau­rant, while other [cooking areas] are 300 to 400 square feet." But somehow these stores make due, and customers like watching their food cooked in plain view. "It sure makes a fresh quality statement," he added.

Like anything else at which profes­sionals excel, foodservice success re­quires steadfast commitment.

"You have to understand what goes into it. You have to purchase the prod­uct, handle and manufacture the prod­uct, market it and promote it, train em­ployees and manage controls," Beuning said. "There are so many things in­volved with foodservice that unless you have the commitment to do it, you won’t be successful at it."

Maureen Azzato is a freelance content developer and editor with 20 years of business publishing experience. Most recently she was the publisher and editorial director of On-the-Go Foodservice, a publication for cross-channel retail foodservice executives.