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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2004December — Food Safety

Eat Responsibly
Steak-Out teaches its customers how to handle their leftovers to avoid getting sick.

You might call Aftan Romanczak a zealot about food safety. “I don’t want to be preachy, but is there anything more noble than keeping people from getting sick?” he asks.

According to Romanczak, director of research and development and purchasing at Steak-Out Char-Broiled Delivery, the 70-unit Norcross, Ga.-based delivery and takeout chain, 5,000 people die each year from foodborne illness. “We want to get the message out: Be responsible with us,” he says. “Shared responsibility will get the numbers down.”

He saw that he could control what happened to food when customers had their meals delivered or picked them up, but not what they did with their leftovers. So early this year he began adding refrigerating and reheating information to all packaging. Steak-Out reprinted and rolled it to stores as they ran out of the old disposables; Romanczak says the rollout has been complete for about six months.

An Educated Customer
The paper bags and clamshell hot-food packaging cautions, “For your protection, follow these safe handling instructions.” The messages give specific times and temperatures for refrigerating and reheating, suggesting use of a food thermometer.

And consumers need the education. Survey results released in April by the American Dietetic Association and the ConAgra Foods Foundation found that nine out of 10 Americans eat leftovers at least once or twice a week. And 52 percent eat restaurant leftovers at least once a week.

Steak-Out Char-Broiled Delivery
Steak-Out Franchising Inc., Norcross, Ga.
2003 Systemwide Sales
$50 million
2004 Systemwide Sales
$50 million (company estimate)
Average Check
Lunch $12 to $14; dinner $16 to $18
Expansion Plans
20 franchised units in 2005

At the same time, the study revealed that more than a third of Americans typically keep their refrigerators set at 40 degrees or higher, and 41 percent said they don’t know what the proper setting should be. It found 89 percent don’t use a meat thermometer to test leftovers when reheating them, and they don’t know what the internal temperature should be.

In the Beginning
One impetus for the new program at Steak-Out was the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s “Farm to Fork” program. “Ours is personal,” Romanczak says. “We take it one step further: farm to fork to fridge.”

Another occurred at an Institute of Food Technologists conference. During a discussion on how to reduce listeria, one of the presenters said that one in four home refrigerators was not in the safe zone of below 40 degrees. “That was an eye-opener. You can control any procedure, from grazing through the store, but what about the part they save for later?” Romanczak says.

Finally he looked at retail packaging, which almost always gives the instruction to check the internal temperature of food.

Romanczak says the packaging will reach the 7 million to 10 million people who will have Steak-Out’s steaks, burgers, chicken-breast fillets, sandwiches, salads and baked potatoes.

“All I can do is put it in front of them. But if only a small percentage read it and do what it says, it will save a lot of people.” He says instructions need to be simple, or people won’t follow them.

Passing the Test
Director of Marketing Tim Myers says the chain received a positive response from customers. “They mostly say it makes it convenient,” he adds.

Steak-Out promoted the program to existing customers through flyers stapled to the takeout bags. While press releases to local media garnered some coverage, Myers calls the marketing efforts “quiet.”

But Romanczak says, “I’m not worried about the marketing implications. It’s do the right thing without being prompted by the government.”

As the chain expands, it will continue using bag tags and releases to tout the program. Steak-Out expects two recent multiunit franchise deals to result in 10 stores each next year in the St. Louis and Jacksonville, Fla., markets. It also is looking at adding possible company units in Atlanta; Raleigh, N.C.; and Columbia, S.C., cities in which it already operates. Steak-Out saw $50 million in systemwide sales in 2003 and expects that figure to remain flat for 2004.

Romanczak looks forward to participating in the unit growth. “I love those fresh unmolded minds, like the first day of school,” he says.

“Get them indoctrinated right away.”

Looking ahead, he adds, “Next, I want to see a thermometer in every American refrigerator. It would be cheap to initiate, compared to the costs of getting sick. Think how simple that solution is. That will convert more people. That’s what we should be doing.”

This zealot may not be all talk. In a magazine article in August 2003, Romanczak said that Steak-Out would probably offer food-safety instructions on its packaging in the future. And he made it happen.

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