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