“Good Food, Freshly Prepared” is the dominant slogan on the website of Pret a Manger, a London-based global chain of 530 sandwich and coffee shops with 90 outlets in the U.S. But recently two of its European customers died after eating at its outlets: one customer from consuming a sandwich with a certain allergen and another from ingesting a yogurt that was labeled as dairy-free but wasn’t.
These incidents followed two-much publicized outbreaks at fast-food and fast-casual restaurant chains: an E.coli outbreak that affected 65 customers who dined at Chipotle in 2015 and a parasite linked to McDonald’s salads in August 2018. The latter incident led McDonald’s to remove the salads from the menu at 3,000 outlets.
These illnesses and deaths erode consumer confidence and hurt a chain’s stock price. Chipotle’s stock, for example, dipped 6% after the incident was reported. The episodes also result in demands that the restaurants take concerted actions to safeguard their food.
Pret a Manger had been thriving in the U.S., exceeding $200 million in sales for the first time in 2016. In many London neighborhoods, it is as ubiquitous as Starbucks is stateside.
Presenting the company’s end-of-year results in April 2017, CEO Clive Schlee noted that it was the 12th year in succession that the chain had recorded revenue growth. He praised its “simple recipe of freshly made food and fast, friendly services (that) allows us to flourish in diverse locations around the world — from Penn Station in New York to the campus of Exeter University and Dubai International Airport.”
After the second incident, Pret a Manger issued a statement on October 3, announcing that it had introduced “full ingredient labeling for all products that are freshly made in its shop kitchen. The labels will list all ingredients, including allergens.” In addition, it has placed warning stickers on all individually made products.
Pret a Manager has explored going public in the U.S. in 2017, although the October 3 press release didn’t comment on this topic.
One of the problems that Pret a Manger and all the fast-casual and fast-food eateries contend with entails controlling their supply chains. In response to the recent incident, Pret a Manger sacked its supplier, but all restaurant chains are dependent on suppliers if the food isn’t made in the individual restaurant.
Regarding food allergies, there’s a lot at stake for restaurant chains, explains Marissa Costonis, a certified health coach and author of Change Bites: 5 Change Management Strategies to Transform Your Health. “Restaurants that commit to practices catering to customers with food allergies and sensitivities will not only keep their diners safe but will keep them coming back with a strong sense of loyalty,” she says.
Costonis notes that sensitive eaters “are more likely to recommend these restaurants to others with similar food requirements via friends, blogs, Instagram and Facebook, making them an even stronger marketing tool than ever.”
These incidents have been on the rise because “science and technology have improved greatly and industry is looking more into their supplier approval ratings,” explains Bridget Sweet, executive director of the food safety program at Johnson and Wales University, a Providence, Rhode Island, culinary school.
“If there’s no inherent food safety culture, we see more incidents of increased illness,” Sweet points out. She also notes that employee training is critical. “For example, making sure the staff knows if they’re sick, they shouldn’t be at work.”
Fast-food and fast-causal eateries face particular challenges because, Sweet notes, “labor is a challenge, and turnover is typically high. Firms may not want to create an extensive onboarding program if they’re going to lose their employees in a month.”
These incidents may also occur in fine-dining eateries, Sweet adds, but because they serve much fewer people, they often don’t get the spotlight put on them and manage to avoid publicity.
To improve their supply chain, many chains are visiting and walking through and inspecting food vendors and distribution centers.
But Sweet emphasizes that a multipronged approach is necessary to ensure food safety. There are three main routes for cross-contamination:
- food to food
- person to food
- equipment to food
She recommends treating those “allergens like a raw product and follow the flow and keep the allergen in a segregated or designated area.” For example, salads with walnuts, almonds and sesame are prepared in a separate area, reducing the chance of exposure.
One way that restaurant chains can improve their menus is to mark items that contain high allergy foods. “Someone with celiac disease or a severe nut allergy isn’t interested in a meal if there is any risk of cross-contamination,” says Costonis.
“Don’t fake it,” urges Costonis. “It takes a celiac just one time to eat a gluten-free meal at a chain restaurant and become severely ill. It’s all over Facebook and Instagram the next day.”
Training servers to be tuned in to customers with allergies is another strategy to avoid customers’ illness. Waitstaff should “ask diners upfront if they have a food allergy,” Costonis recommends.
To restore confidence in healthy eating, affected restaurant chains have to “demonstrate a public commitment to food safety and own it. They have to be transparent about how they’re going to fix it,” Sweet says.
Despite these several incidents having taken place, “most people do still have a healthy reliance on the food chain and they believe that their food is served wholesome, unadulterated and healthful,” Sweet observes.