DEFIANCE, Ohio — For a 12-store food retailer, Chief Super Market here, runner-up for SN’s 2011 Food Safety Innovation Award, puts an unusual emphasis on education.
In 2009, the retailer, which runs eight stores in northwest Ohio under the Chief banner and four under Rays, launched Chief University to train both management and hourly employees in the finer points of food retailing. “We decided the training we had in the past was not working — there was a lot of eye rolling,” said Stephanie Skylar, Chief’s president and chief executive officer.
So the company developed its own curriculum for everything from HR/legal responsibilities and department manager 101 to manager-on-duty and produce operations. Classes are held at company headquarters and above one of the stores; some will soon be offered as computer-based training in stores.
Also under the auspices of Chief University is a 16-hour food safety class that all employees in fresh food departments (meat, deli, bakery and produce) must take to become certified in safe food handling. Unlike the other home-grown classes, the food safety curriculum is based on the Food Marketing Institute’s SuperSafeMark program.
The class is taught by Rose Richardson, store director at Chief’s Defiance store and a member of FMI’s food safety committee, who became a certified food safety trainer through SuperSafeMark in 2009.
To date, Chief has held seven 16-hour sessions (including one this month), resulting in certifications for 189 fresh-food employees, which account for 70% of the employees in those departments. In addition, two eight-hour classes have been given for recertification, which is required every five years. Topics covered in the food safety curriculum include proper cooking and storage temperatures, contamination issues and food allergens. The food safety classes also dovetail with other topics covered within Chief University.
While Chief has never had significant problems with food safety, the certification class nonetheless serves as “a good insurance policy” against future incidents and demonstrates the company’s dedication to food safety,” Skylar said. “It’s about discipline and expectations. If you work in the food business you need to be knowledgeable about this.”
In other food safety initiatives, Chief partners with Damon Industries, Alliance, Ohio, a cleaning and sanitation provider, on standard operating procedures for cleaning and on cleaning-product safety information. Chief plans to begin formal food safety inspections of stores in 2012, said Skylar.
In addition, for the past year Chief has been a member of the Rapid Recall Exchange, the online service created by FMI and GS1 US to facilitate communication of product recall information from suppliers to retailers.
Chief had certified employees in safe food handling in the past through state-run programs, but with the advent of Chief University in 2009 “we got serious,” said Skylar. “I said I want all fresh-food associates trained and certified. There are enough chances for something to go wrong and we don’t want it to be the product we’re creating or selling.”
The discipline acquired through the training, she added, is essential both for the safety of customers and the company’s reputation. “Our reputation is everything. It’s at stake with every customer every day.”
Having associates who are certified in safe food handling “sets us apart from other retailers,” added Theresa Stafford, Chief’s director of human resources and risk management.
Most are able to pass the food safety class, and tutoring is provided for the one or two employees who lag behind. “We want people to succeed,” said Skylar. Moreover, employees who become certified have a “sense of pride” about it. “This is the most difficult class we have at Chief University,” she said. “It is difficult to master.”
On a seasonal basis, such as during grilling season, Chief communicates food safety tips to customers through circulars and newspaper ads, mentioning also its food safety certification program for fresh-department employees.