Jim Donald’s favorite new tool is an iPhone with a boom mic that he uses to record 45-second vignettes at Albertsons stores across the country, capturing stories from the front lines that he posts online every Friday. “I’m after spontaneous just-in-time examples of where our company is heading.”
Donald, who in March was named CEO of grocery retail giant Albertsons and is former president and chief executive officer at Starbucks, predicts bots will be refilling retail store shelves and unloading trucks by the year 2023, while the migration of more millennials into the workforce will bring educated and tech-savvy employees who strive to “one-up the competition.”
Donald says Albertsons is embracing the future by redefining job responsibilities and titles from management to the front lines. A deli meat cutter might become an e-commerce specialist. “We are creating new roles for people to make e-commerce sexy.”
He offers important words of warning in the food safety arena, noting that “if food safety outbreaks continue to happen, our industry is going to have problems.
“When I walk around our stores, I look closely at where we are at from a food safety perspective,” Donald says, adding an important caveat that “health and wellness coincides unbelievably with food safety and sanitation.”
Bill Davis, sales manager at Edward Don & Company, a leading distributor of foodservice equipment, agrees that food safety is gaining tremendous importance in the booming age of foodservice takeout and delivery.
“The biggest problem now is holding food for pickup,” says Davis, speaking at the 2018 National Restaurant Association Show. “Monitoring temperatures is a huge thing.”
For this reason, food holding cabinets are being equipped with app-based technology that enables managers to receive automatic notifications on their mobile devices if a lapse in the cold chain occurs.
“You might get an alert at home that the busboy left the refrigerator door open,” he says as one example. “All restaurants are going to go to that. With health scares like the recent one involving romaine lettuce, the health department is going to claim down to make sure operators are monitoring all their boxes.”
In an industry whose sales have been surpassed by foodservice, an industry rocked by the Amazons of the world, disruption is everywhere. At the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s annual show in New Orleans, the message was clear: to deal with disruption coming at you from the outside, you need to disrupt right back.
Donald, an IDDBA speaker, recounted some of the changes that had taken place since his first tenure with Albertsons in the 1990s. “Charcuterie was beef jerky, grab ‘n go was a cup of donut holes and a meal kit was a hoagie and chips,” he said.
“The future of fresh is out there stronger than ever,” says Donald, who boasts an illustrious career that includes senior leadership roles at Albertsons, Safeway and Starbucks. “I see fresh moving into the center of the arena. The future of fresh is figuring out the last mile of e-commerce.”
The most significant change? The fresh perimeter at Albertsons has grown sixteen-fold in 17 years, Donald said, compared to seven-fold for all merchandise. Since Donald left Albertsons in 1991, the company has grown from 500 to 2,319 stores, with $60 billion in annual sales and 280,000 employees. The fresh portion of Albertsons total sales is now 17 times larger at $35 billion.
“The future of fresh is determined by the diversity of your associates, your leaders and your products,” Donald adds. “Making sure innovation is first and foremost is key. If we don’t, we’re done.”