The Chains Outshine Single-Site Restaurants Operators Know Bad News Would Link Them All

Article excerpt

Chain restaurants performed slightly better than single-site restaurants in a Post-Dispatch computer analysis of health inspection scores since 1990.

Chain operators said that's just what they would expect. A chain lives or dies by its reputation.

"What might happen in one of our restaurants might damage our reputation across the country," said Rob Doughty, spokesman for Pizza Hut - the nation's largest restaurant owner, with about 7,600 stores worldwide, 60 percent of which are company-owned.

David Theno knows how fast a reputation can be tarnished. Theno is vice president in charge of quality assurance for Jack In The Box restaurants.

In January, two children died and hundreds of people became ill from hamburgers sold at Jack In The Box restaurants in Washington state. The restaurants cooked the meat at temperatures too low to kill the vicious E. coli bacteria.

At the time, the chain was meeting FDA standards that the meat be cooked to a temperature of 140 degrees; Washington state, however, had raised the standard to 155 degrees and the FDA has since followed suit. City and county inspectors here follow FDA standards.

Investigators traced the bacteria to the chain's meat supplier in California. The chain quickly instituted a meat inspection program and changed the cooking process. The meat is stored at a warehouse until it tests negative for E. coli. The chain ships it to the stores, which monitor it for bacteria throughout the preparation process. The restaurants now cook at higher temperatures.

The changes came too late for many Jack In The Box workers. A panicked public all but quit buying the hamburgers. The drop in sales forced stores in the Pacific Northwest to lay off from 40 to 75 percent of their work forces. An association of Jack In The Box franchisees, suffering from plummeting sales, sued the corporation for $100 million. Quality Control

National chains spend millions of dollars each year trying to avoid outbreaks of food-borne illness like the one that struck the Jack In The Box chain and is now plaguing Sizzler restaurants in the Northwest.

In April, health authorities closed two Sizzler restaurants in Oregon after an E. coli outbreak was blamed for sickening as many as 61 patrons. In August, health officials closed a Sizzler restaurant north of Seattle after the E. coli bacteria infected six patrons.

Quality control systems help most chains and franchises perform better on inspections than single-site restaurants, operators say.

"The difference between a chain like ours and a single venue is that we have additional resources to put against it," said Doughty, of Pizza Hut.

To evaluate how restaurants performed on food inspections, the Post-Dispatch analyzed restaurants in two ways: all individual restaurants, and chain-owned or -affiliated restaurants as a class.

The newspaper defined a chain as having at least three restaurants, delicatessens or snack bars under the same name, with similar menus and pricing. It included only chains whose individual units had been inspected at least six times since 1990.

Many national chains - Jack In The Box, Pizza Hut and Rax among them - have food quality programs. The programs might include surprise inspections, employee training, financial incentives and visits by undercover quality-control officers posing as customers.

Since the E. coli outbreak, Jack In The Box has added a program with the unwieldy title of Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points. It tries to detect points at which food is most vulnerable to contamination in its preparation - from the farm to the serving line. Health departments across the country, including St. Louis County and some in Illinois, are moving toward those critical-control principles.

In some cases, the corporate office takes a keen interest in how the individual stores perform in inspections. …