MRM's "Ask the Expert” features advice from Consolidated Concepts Inc.
Please send questions to Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine Executive Editor Barbara Castiglia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q:: How can I best avoid and overcome lettuce recalls?
A: Take a moment to think back to 2018. What do you remember about the year in restaurants and foodservice? Anthony Bourdain? Mario Batali? iHOb? While all of those stories attracted major news outlet attention – they meant far less in the daily lives of operators than November's Romaine Lettuce Recall. For those who may have forgotten, or blocked the nightmare scenario from their memories, the CDC issued a recall on Romaine lettuce just two days before Thanksgiving, with guidance advising against consumption of all Romaine lettuce. Restaurants and retailers across the country were ordered to destroy all product and a mad dash for alternative leafy greens ensued, causing a spike in market prices of vegetables from butter lettuce to broccoli. The recall obviously had an immediate effect on many restaurants, who were forced to destroy product, alter their menu, or close altogether.
So, how can operators handle and respond to Romaine recalls in the future to mitigate risks and protect their brands?
Follow CDC Guidelines
When the CDC issues a recall alert, some operators may think they’re above the recall, don’t have to follow it, or assume their product is safe. These are never good assumptions to make. In fact, operators of chains – large or small – should follow whatever steps the CDC recommends. This goes to protect the brand, their products, suppliers, and their customers. For example, When Scott Davis, president of CoreLife Eatery, saw the news alert from the CDC, he and his teams quickly went into action. And it wasn’t without hardship. CoreLife is a healthy, locally-sourced, bowl-heavy concept that frequently uses Romaine lettuce.
How can operators handle and respond to Romaine recalls in the future to mitigate risks and protect their brands?
"The way the CDC phrased it didn't leave us much choice; we had to pull our product,” Davis said. "We quarantined our product to see if we should destroy it or use it. We didn't know the scope and scale of the situation yet."
While the scale was unknown, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. Even though CoreLife lost a margin of its product, the risks could have been much higher had a guest consumed a product that was contaminated.
Communicate the Recall to Employees and Guests
As a bowl concept, Romaine makes up a huge portion of what CoreLife Eatery serves. So, when the November recall took place, Davis' immediate priority became developing a plan for how to communicate the company's strategy to customers as well as partners. Davis had a designer create signage explaining the situation, which he then sent to all stores with a directive that the information should be prominently displayed.
During times of a recalled product, especially of highly used ingredients, it becomes paramount that operators communicate the recall to their guests and employees. Make sure employees know why the recall occurred. In addition, make sure customers know why an ingredient is suddenly unavailable. In terms of Romaine lettuce, or other produce, have ingredients to recommend in place of specific varieties. For example, spinach and kale both heat well and can be used in cold and hot salads or broths.
It’s also important to communicate when a product is once again back on the ingredient list. CoreLife suffered an immediate loss of close to 15% of sales during the recall period. But to aid in recovery, the brand upped its investments in social media promotions and other traffic-driving channels to bring restaurants back into the concept's 50+ locations.
Have a Produce Management Company (or Plan B) in Place
During times of intense pressure due to produce recalls, it’s a good idea to have a Plan B in place. This is when working with a third-party produce management company can help.
"Our produce management company gave us the confidence that we had someone overseeing the problem,” Davis said. “They have the best knowledge of what's going on out there and are on top of making sure we have the best information."
A third-party produce management company also can help in terms of securing alternative ingredients and making sure operators have the necessary backup of items that can be used.