PALO ALTO, Calif. - Richard Draeger, owner of Draeger's Supermarkets headquartered here, had all he could stand.
The operator of decidedly upscale supermarkets in Los Altos, Menlo Park and SanMateo wanted a weapon he could use when health inspectors came into his stores to, what he called, "arbitrarily enforce" health standards.
"We wanted a system in place that could document that our [refrigeration] system was operating properly," Draeger said.
"We were having problems with the health department applying a very uneven application of rules for us," he said.
That's when Draeger turned to a Dallas, Texas-based company, FreshLoc Technologies, that had introduced a new product called the Wireless Food Simulator.
The simulator, a small wireless device that is placed in a store's various refrigerated cases, reports the internal food temperatures of all perishable foods.
The wireless device transmits the information to receptors or "readers" that are typically located on a wall or overhead on a ceiling. One reader can process information from 1,000 simulators, Draeger said.
However, the typical supermarket could get by with using anywhere from 50 to 80 simulators to provide adequate coverage for its perishables.
The readers then transmit the information about the internal temperatures of the perishable items in a supermarket to the store's computer network, where at the simple stroke of the keyboard an operator can check on how all of his store's perishable stock is doing.
"I can even get a map view, like a virtual view of the store, on my computer with a view of all the cases in color-coded data.
"I could even sit at home in my bathrobe and go to any of my stores [on the computer] and check them all out," Draeger added.
But perhaps the feature Draeger likes the best is that the FreshLoc system provided him with a documented electronic time-stamped log of how all of his perishables were faring. This, he said, is a mighty powerful weapon to combat an overzealous health inspectors' claims.
While he did not provide SN with a specific dollar amount for what the new system cost him, Draeger said he thought the investment was well worth it.
"On a cost-per-store average, it was very inexpensive," Draeger said.
Draeger said that before he installed the Wireless Food Simulator in all three of his stores, he was spending money needlessly on expensive repairs to his refrigerated cases.
"I was losing profits," he said. "I had to have our refrigerated vendors out unneccessarily several times to fix equipment that didn't need repairs."
The wireless food simulator houses an insulated thermometer that mimics the thermal characteristics of food.
If the air temperature in a refrigerated environment causes the simulator's temperature to rise or fall beyond a predetermined range, the simulator immediately sends a signal to a computer or pager alert to store personnel who can quickly attend to the problem.
The instant notification provides time and temperature data that can be used to analyze the food's condition.
According to Draeger, it's all a far cry from the old days.
"I used to have managers go around on a two-hour basis and measure the hot spots in all the cases," Draeger said.
That method is not only time consuming, but labor intensive as well.
Moreover, Bradley Shafer, director of food safety for Draeger's, said the Wireless Food Simulator is even more accurate than the point-and-shoot laser gun thermometers that tend to record only the surface temperatures of perishables.
Shafer said the new FreshLoc device has the ability to record core temperatures.
Additionally, Shafer said he was impressed by the real-time reports the Wireless Food Simulator provided to the store officials on a two-hour basis.
"I get e-mails every two hours on perishable food temperatues from all three stores," Shafer said. "When I want information, it's there. Plus, I get alerted to any alarming situations."
Draeger said that not having to worry anymore about how his perishable stock is doing goes a long way to making him sleep easier at night, too.
"Peace of mind is the biggest issue for me and my managers," Draeger said. "We were running scared from the local health department."
Draeger said the methods he was using prior to installing the Wireless Food Simulator were outdated.
"Manually logging in temperatures was mundane and prone to error," he said.
Besides, he said, with the new system he has electronically documented proof.
"Any number of things can go wrong [with refrigerated systems]," Draeger said. "Now, we don't have to worry about it as much."
Industry insiders claim that the Wireless Food Simulator also reduces waste in times when refrigerated cases do break down.
In the past, when refrigerated cases broke down, supermarket operators tended to throw out perishable products, being unaware of what the internal temperatures of the product was.
Now, instead of discarding all food exposed to warmer air temperatues, personnel can first look at the real temperature of the food to determine whether quality was compromised.
While Draeger's pilot tested the Wireless Food Simulator last year and eventually rolled it out in all of its stores, Doug Foster, chief operating officer, FreshLoc, said the devices have only been on the market since Jan. 1.
The small wireless simulators come in two sizes, each with different levels of insulation.
Most operators are most interested in protecting their expensive meat products, thus the larger sensor that replicates the thermal characteristcs of meat is the most popular.
However, the smaller sensor is capable of replicating the thermal characteristics of a four-ounce package of sushi, Foster said.
"This provides real control over the temperatue challenge," Foster said. "For years, the industry has had to rely on interpolating ambient air temperatues to see if food was safe. With FreshLoc's new wireless device, personnel have a true picture of the actual food and are only alerted when the problem is real."
"Installing food simulators in our stores was a logical expression of our commitment to provide only the highest-quality products," said Shafer.