Industry News | February 26, 2007

Taco Bell Franchisees Can’t Discuss Rat Problem

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By Fred Minnick

Taco Bell franchisees are not happy about the rat situation. More than a dozen operators contacted by QSRmagazine.com said they were “embarrassed” about a video of rats scurrying around a closed KFC/Taco Bell restaurant in New York Friday. But they can’t talk about it, citing clauses in their franchise agreements.

“We have a consistent policy about corporate spokespersons, and it’s been in place for many years,” says Rob Poetsch, Taco Bell spokesperson, in a phone interview Monday. “That is not a policy that has changed because of anything in the last 72 hours.” That’s not very smart, says Patrick Riccards, vice president of LipmanHearne, a marketing and communications firm.

“In a situation like this, New Yorkers want to hear from fellow New Yorkers,” Riccards says. “They don’t necessarily want to hear from a corporate voice in [Louisville]. It is incredibly dangerous to operate a growth model through franchisees but not let your franchisees speak on the behalf of their own businesses.”

The rat incident marks the company’s second crisis in recent months. Last fall, dozens of customers were sickened by E. coli bacteria, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced back to the chain's supplier of lettuce. Taco Bell acted quickly in that PR nightmare by closing the stores and setting up a 1-800 number for sickened customers.

This time, parent company YUM Brands closed the rat-infested restaurant in Greenwich Village, New York. The store passed health inspections as recent as the Thursday before the rats were recorded, but was cited for evidence of rodents several times in the past three years. According to one CNN report, the restaurant scored a 10 on the city Department of Health's inspection meter—28 or more indicates that the restaurant poses a public health hazard.

“We will not allow it to be reopened until it has been sanitized and given a complete clean bill of health,” YUM Brands International said in an issued statement. “We want to assure our customers that nothing is more important to us than food safety and their health.”

Brand experts are doubtful the chain can recover.

“The public can forgive you once, but not twice and certainly not in the same 12 months,” says Rob Frankel, author of Revenge of the Brand

The situation is even worse since local papers and radio and television can’t cover the “local” angle with franchisees, says many communications experts.

“With hundreds of individual franchisees facing blowback in any number of markets, it would be wise to give franchisees clear, definitive guidelines on how best to handle local media questions,” says Mike Collins, the former spokesperson for the Republican Party.

“The franchisees shouldn’t be allowed to twist in the wind when local media show up at their doorstep.”

Fred Minnick is a professional writer based in Louisville, Kentucky. Contact him at editor@FredWrite.com.