Wendy's begins work to rebuild reputation after woman's arrest

Response: An expert says free Frosties and coupons may not be enough to repair damage done by a customer's claim that a human fingertip was in her chili.

April 23, 2005|By John Schmeltzer | John Schmeltzer,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Wendy's International Inc. said yesterday that it will focus on rebuilding its reputation after a San Jose, Calif., woman who claimed she found a fingertip in a bowl of chili she ordered has been charged with attempted theft.

But one crisis management expert said he believed that the fast food chain was doing too little to heal its reputation.

The Columbus, Ohio-based hamburger chain said it was "thrilled" and "vindicated that an arrest had been made."

Las Vegas police were holding 39-year-old Anna Ayala without bail pending an extradition hearing Tuesday on a charge of attempted grand larceny. Prosecutors are accusing her of trying to extort $2.5 million from Wendy's. She also faces charges of grand larceny in connection with an unrelated real estate case.

The $100,000 reward Wendy's offered for information regarding the chili incident March 22 will not be distributed while police continue searching for the source of the 1 1/2 -inch fingertip.

Losses suffered by the hamburger chain could be in the millions. The company is attempting to determine how widespread the fallout will be from the incident at one San Jose restaurant.

"We're still trying to assess the full impact," said Bob Bertini, a spokesman for Wendy's, who said the losses have been severe in the San Francisco Bay area. Sales have fallen by more than 50 percent at some of the chain's Bay-area restaurants, he said.

Bertini said Wendy's will reach out to customers in the 50 San Francisco area stores beginning today, offering free Junior Frosties and coupons.

In addition, he said a deli-style sandwich will be introduced and tested in the San Francisco area to lure customers back to the restaurants, where some employees have been laid off and others have had their hours cut.

"The unfortunate thing was that Wendy's and its franchisees have been a victim of this situation," Bertini said. "And our employees are suffering because of it."

Steven Fink handled crisis management issues for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska in 1989, the meltdown of the reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979 and the deaths and illness suffered by patrons of Jack in the Box restaurants a decade ago. He wasn't impressed with Wendy's reaction.

"There are things they should have done to keep people coming back to the restaurants," said Fink, president of Lexicon Communications Corp. in Pasadena, Calif.

Wendy's should be copying Pat & Oscar's, a Southern California restaurant chain that served 55,000 people free meals over three days after E. coli bacteria sickened hundreds in an effort to assure residents that their restaurants were safe, he said.

"In the pitched battle between perception and reality, perception always wins. The perception was it was not safe to eat at Wendy's. Giving away milk shakes and coupons does not tell people Wendy's is a safe place to eat," he said.

Even yesterday, the chain relied upon the Santa Clara County district attorney's office to declare it safe to eat at Wendy's.

"America should go back to eating at Wendy's," an assistant district attorney said.

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