Applebee’s: Spinach crisis provided valuable insights

Restaurateurs’ vulnerability to produce contamination was underscored during the session by David Parsley’s recount of what happened at Applebee’s after E. coli O157:H7 was found in fresh, bagged “ready to eat” spinach last September.

At the time, explained Parsley, who is senior vice president of supply chain management for franchisor Applebee’s International [3], the casual-dining giant was about to launch a major marketing push for a new spinach entrée salad.

“We had over 65,000 pounds of spinach on the road, in kitchens, in warehouses,” he said. “We notified all units to dispose of all that spinach immediately.”

Commercials for the new salad were ready to roll, with the airtime already booked. Management decided to postpone the whole campaign for at least a week.

Fortunately, Parsley said,“we were at a franchise conference in Phoenix, so the whole system was there. We notified everyone we had to that spinach would not be part of that campaign, and we switched to arugula.”

Now the chain had an arugula salad, but with an ad campaign that pushed a spinach version. To make matters worse, the spots featured celebrity chef and television star Tyler Florence, who had developed the recipe as part of a new, highly publicized partnership with the chain.

Luckily, Parsley said, Florence had also come to the franchisee meeting.

“We were able to get him into our studios and shoot new commercials,” he said. “In only 10 days, we were able to change everything.”

Parsley said the company gained insight from the incident. For instance, it realized how important it is to know who’s moving what product into which unit.

“We had over 80 distributors of fresh produce,” Parsley said. “We had to go out and know all of those distributors.”

The company learned a great deal, he said, hinting at the importance of that enlightenment for a chain that buys some 27 million pounds of leafy greens and 16 million pounds of tomatoes for the 61 million salads it serves every year.

But, he predicted, “it will happen again.”