By Pat Pape
ALEXANDRIA, Va.—There’s no playbook to help foodservice operators reopen after a pandemic and quarantine. But convenience operators are combining state and local mandates with common sense and extra sanitation to get their businesses back up and running.
With 750-plus locations in 44 states and six Canadian provinces, Pilot Flying J is reopening its restaurants in accordance with a wide range of regulations.
“We’re re-opening dining rooms at our Pilot and Flying J travel centers as permitted, following local and state social distancing and capacity requirements to ensure safety for all,” said Stephanie Myers, external communications supervisor. “We continue to reinforce best practices for safety, hygiene and frequent cleaning of all commonly touched areas and utensils. And we’re working hard to keep masks and hand sanitizer products in stock for guest purchase.”
Pilot Flying J team members are required to wear masks while working inside the travel centers. Where it’s mandated, guests must wear masks in-store.
Outside Dining but Limited Indoor Seating
Meanwhile, business is picking up at Slovacek’s convenience store in West, Texas, just off I-35 between Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin. The first week of the lockdown, business dropped to 30% of the same period last year, but on Mother’s Day weekend, it was 85% of last year, said Ray Rabroker, general manager. “The more cars on I-35, the more business we have.”
The store’s Kissing Pig Cafe originally had seating for 84, which was removed during the lockdown. Now, three tables have returned, each exactly six feet apart. Four outside tables on the store’s covered front porch were never removed. Most customers still come inside and order to-go foods.
Slovacek’s renown barbeque has always been served on disposable dishes. The menu remains the same, but prices will have to increase. “Brisket has gone from $2.83 a pound to $6.29,” Rabroker said. “When it comes to meat, everything is going up like crazy.”
Members of a 12-person sanitation crew cleans after each customer’s visit. All store employees wear masks and gloves. Guests aren’t required to wear a mask, although many do. Early in the lockdown, Slovacek’s gave free masks to customers, “but when kids started leaving with four or five on their arms, we had to stop,” he said. “And if anyone asks, we’ll still give them one.”
(Slovacek’s was featured in the 2017 NACS Ideas 2 Go.)
Sanitizing on the Hour
In Eastland, Texas, the Maverick Travel Center’s grill is operating, and the Center’s attached 15-seat Taco Casa restaurant has reopened. The grill, open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., serves a full breakfast and a lunch menu of barbeque, sandwiches, hot dogs and fries. Customers can pick up to-go orders or eat in the Taco Casa dining room.
“We wear masks and gloves, and we social distance,” said Claudia Reeves, manager. “We sanitize every hour on the hour—anything anyone touches. All the rails, restrooms, doors and handles. This is probably the cleanest store you’re going to find in Eastland, Texas.”
Face Masks and Gloves Required
All operations for Melvin L. Davis Oil of Stony Creek, Virginia—two travel centers, three Subways, a Popeye’s, Wendy’s, Starbucks and Little Caesar's Pizza—have reopened, although the formerly 24/7 Subway and Starbucks now close at 10 p.m.
“Employees in the QSRs must wear gloves and masks at all times for the safety of guests and employees,” said Bill Decker, operations manager. “Receivers at the travel centers must wear a mask when they check in vendors, and we’re requiring all vendors to wear a mask because we don’t know who they’ve come in contact with.”
Signage on all store entrances encourages guests to wear masks as well, and markers on the floor designate proper social distancing. “We aren’t allowing guests to sit inside the QSRs, and we’ve removed the chairs and tables,” said Decker. “Guests can come inside and place an order, but then they have to go outside where we’ve provided picnic tables. We’ve posted signs that permit only two guests to a table.”
Coffee and fountain drinks are served by travel center personnel, a practice that will continue “until we feel it’s safe for everyone,” he said.
Every Thursday through Monday, a store employee is stationed at the pumps to assist guests needing fuel and to wipe down fuel dispensers and keypads. “The older generation appreciates this,” Decker said. “They don’t have to touch a thing except to insert their credit card. We do the rest.”
Social Distancing and Mobile Checkout
7-Eleven restaurant concepts, “Laredo Taco Company and Raise the Roost Chicken & Biscuits have safely remained open to serve customers throughout the pandemic,” said Chris Tanco, chief operating officer, 7-Eleven. “The safety of store associates and customers continues to be the top priority. Because of this, we have enhanced our safety measures and adjusted operations in stores to maintain a safe shopping environment.”
Customers may still have food delivered from both restaurants, and mobile checkout is available in all flagship locations through the 7-Eleven app, allowing customers to skip the checkout counter. Visual floor markers indicate proper social distancing, and acrylic shields are installed at sales counters.
“We work with third-party food safety auditors to maintain a high level of performance and safety in all 7-Eleven restaurants, and the standards exceed local, state and federal guidelines,” he said. “All corporate store staff, including restaurant concepts, are required to wear PPE, including masks.”
In March, the chain rearranged indoor and outdoor dining rooms following CDC and WHO recommendations and local mandates. Laredo Taco Company dining rooms in Washington, D.C., Texas and San Diego have tables six feet apart and receive additional sanitizing.
In flagship stores with Laredo Taco Company, custom orders are prepared behind a protective barrier. Customers pay at the front sales counter as with any other purchase. At Raise the Roost Chicken & Biscuits, customers may create a custom order or find safely packaged staple entrees in grab-and-go hot cases to limit contact and touchpoints.
“Although it has been challenging, throughout this pandemic our menu has not changed, and options have not been limited,” said Tanco, although salsa and condiment bars have been temporarily modified and are now employee-served.
“Customers can simply ask for what they are craving, and they shall receive,” he added.
NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.
Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer. See more of her articles at NACS Magazine and at patpape.wordpress.com.