SumoSalad Hepatitis A Disaster

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    Sick worker triggers health alert for salad bar

    [Editor’s note: We’re pleased to bring you another guest article from crisis consultant and frequent contributor Tony Jaques]

    When hepatitis A was discovered in a worker at Sydney fresh salad bar SumoSalad, the company initially did some things well, but they also made some crucial errors in crisis communication.

    It was a nightmare scenario for any food company, and even more so for SumoSalad, which sells itself as “the healthiest fast food franchise.”

    On August 1, the New South Wales Ministry of Health issued a health warning for anyone who had eaten at the chain’s central Sydney store, where a worker had been diagnosed with hepatitis A after a visit to Indonesia.

    The health authority said customers at the salad bar over a two week period might have been exposed to the disease and recommended that some of them may need a hepatitis A vaccination, while for others it was too late.

    In a brief statement on the SumoSalad website, CEO Luke Baylis said it was an isolated incident at just one store and he emphasised that during a review the NSW Food Authority had acknowledged that the company was compliant with all food safety regulations and determined there was no further risk of infection.

    It was a classic response and, apart from the fact that the statement was posted a day AFTER the government warning, the CEO was doing some things well.

    He issued the statement in his own name and provided his personal mobile phone number rather than hiding behind a PR spokesperson. He also made sure that all medical opinion was attributed to independent experts. However, nowhere in his statement or subsequent reported interviews did he say he was sorry or express sympathy for his customers.

    The Ministry statement had described the risk of infection as ”probably low” but in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald the CEO seemingly thought that was no longer good enough. “While she (the staff member) was working in the store she wore gloves at all times, so there is a very, very miniscule possibility that anyone could have contracted the virus.” That may have been his non-expert opinion, but does not seem wise at the same time as medical authorities were urging people to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

    In his formal statement the CEO had said customer safety was his highest priority, but he appeared reluctant to express any sympathy for clients at the salad bar who were frightened they may have been exposed to a serious illness.

    In fact in a subsequent interview with the business website Smart Company his focus was defensive and almost entirely focused on his concern about his brand rather than his customers.

    It was a situation that is not created by employer negligence, Mr. Baylis said, and he added that the franchise would have to work hard to counter the inevitable brand damage that had already occurred through reports of the infection.

    “This will be damaging for our brand, but we hope people will see the lengths SumoSalad has gone to in order to assure our customers’ safety.”

    Stating the blindingly obvious in the midst of a corporate crisis was less than helpful, and served only to reinforce that his main concern was to “manage the damage of the situation.”

    It seems the benefits of the original calm, planned strategy were soon overcome by the CEO’s enthusiasm to keep talking and go off message.

    As he optimistically told Smart Company: “We hope that our customers will look at this as a positive, but there are certain people that will take a negative approach to this and will be skeptical”

    Really, Mr. Baylis? You think? Maybe that extraordinary statement sounded better inside your head than in cold, hard print.

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    Tony Jaques is Director of Issue Outcomes, a full-service crisis management firm serving clients across PanAsia.