MENLO PARK, Calif. — Tiny, wireless temperature monitors are helping Draeger’s Supermarkets, a prestigious, 74-year-old food “specialist” in the Bay area of northern California, do a better job of ensuring continued food quality.

Draeger’s Menlo Park store at 1010 University Park is the only one where the TempAssure wireless temperature monitoring system (made by the NewID Co., Plano, Texas) is fully implemented to date.

It is being used as a “test bed” to fine tune the system before it is installed in two other Draeger stores in Los Altos and San Mateo, according to Brad Shafer, food safety engineer at Draeger’s.

California’s standards for safe food storage in stores are getting more restrictive, says Tony Draeger, vice president, and new limits will be imposed by 2002. However, Draeger’s is already learning valuable, sometimes surprising lessons about the fluctuations in refrigerated and frozen food display case and storage facilities.

“We are super-saturating our coolers with sensors,” Draeger says.

Checking every second

The wireless TempAssure monitors check temperatures every second and transmit their findings every six seconds to a computer console in Shafer’s office, where changes are reported every minute of the day and night.

Using a 65-ft dairy case in the Menlo Park store as an example of the change made possible with the new monitoring system, Shafer says product in that case must be kept at 45°F or below. Formerly open-front vertical cases now have strip curtains for customer access.

“We used to check temps in that case manually three times a day at random sites within the case,” Shafer recalls. “Now we have 10 wireless sensors there. We can tell when a case is open, when it’s in defrost mode, when the cooling system might have failed, and how the system performs if a back access door is open.”

He and other store executives had assumed that when a back door of that case (which opens into a refrigerated stock room) was open, no worrisome temperature fluctuations would occur.

“We’ve learned that when the back door is open, it sucks store air into the display case and can raise temperatures there as much as 21° in one hour. We shut those access doors as quickly as possible now.”

“We manufacture food on premises, too,” notes Draeger, so temperature control in those food processing areas, including delicatessen departments, is also critical and can be better monitored with the new wireless monitors.

“We’ve found some surprising things on airflow and temperature in deli cases that we didn’t know before.”

Draeger’s upscale grocery business is complemented by not only delicatessens but also a premier restaurant, Viognier (at the Draeger Market Place in San Mateo), and even a culinary school. At Menlo Park, Draeger’s includes a bistro restaurant and coffee and wine bar.

Sounding the alarm

When the system in each of the three Draeger stores is completely set up, it will be able to sound an alarm and leave messages for Shafer and other company managers.

“Through our computer network and the Internet, we can check all three stores from any network site, or I can check it from my home,” Shafer notes.

NewID vice president Dick Fettig explained, “We designed TempAssure to help supermarkets comply with local and state regulations as well as with other quality standards such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) guidelines.

“TempAssure offers supermarkets, with their large floor space and numerous refrigerators, an easy solution to food safety and refrigeration monitoring. Because it is wireless, it is an easy choice for a store director. Installation is simple, fast, and adjustable at any time by average store employees.”

Both Draeger and Shafer note that the new monitoring approach enables them to closely observe actual performance and compare it to claimed design standards of their current equipment as well as cases and coolers they are considering for purchase.

“Some cases don’t perform as well as they are supposed to do,” Shafer reports.

Beyond twinkies

Performance is critical, given Draeger’s extensive gourmet selections.

The pantry area stocks more than 50,000 items from all parts of the world. The wine department, with more than 2,500 labels, demands proper temperature and humidity.

The delicatessen includes a cheese department with over 250 varieties. Meat department offerings range from aged Midwestern beef to live fish, caviar from the Caspian Sea, and a sushi bar.

“We expect to have these remote sensors installed in all temperature-controlled cases in all three stores by 2002,” says Shafer. That’s when more stringent California regulations on food temperatures become effective. (However, rules for dairy products will not change from the 45° maximum now specified.)

Shafer believes remote sensing and monitoring technology such as that being installed by Draeger’s is not only a tremendous tool for supermarket operators, but also has tremendous potential for anyone in the refrigeration and hvac industries. “I have a neighbor who is an hvac contractor, and he says there’s nothing like it available in his business.”