Romaine Scare Hits Fast Casual Restaurant Chains

While the biggest U.S. restaurant chains are likely to shrug off the latest lettuce scare, salad-focused ones are ripping up their menus and making impromptu substitutions.

Jaime Mitrani, who owns five Giardino Gourmet Salads locations in Miami, said sales were down after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told American consumers Tuesday to avoid romaine because it might be contaminated with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli bacteria.

“Last night we did notice a slower than normal night,” Mitrani said in an interview. “It might be even slower” today, he said. “People are definitely aware.”

In response, the 17-location salad chain is trying to sell quinoa-and-rice bowls made with baby leaf and spinach in lieu of romaine-based options. And Mitrani says he’s removed the extra $1.50 he usually charges for more premium greens including arugula and kale.

Sweetgreen, a Culver City, California-based chain, said it’s pulled all romaine and spring mix that has baby romaine until further notice from the CDC about the growing regions that are affected. The company has about 90 locations and says it frequently sources ingredients from local farmers.

Sales of romaine in the U.S. were already down, totaling $47 million in the four weeks that ended Nov. 3, according to Nielsen. That’s almost 12 percent lower than a year earlier.

‘Romaine Calm’

On Wednesday, a Freshii location in Chicago had posted a “Romaine Calm” sign near its register. When customers order a romaine-based item, like the buffalo salad, they’ll be offered kale or spinach, said manager Arnulfo Castillo, who noted people are likely to “shy away” from salads because of the latest scare.

He’s anticipating a drop in sales due to the recall on a day that’s already slow thanks to the Thanksgiving week. Consumers may be thinking “let’s not eat any type of lettuce for a while,” he said.

The only salad available at Panera Bread Co. out of its 11 options is the ancient-grain chicken that is made with arugula and apple-cabbage slaw. The rest have been taken off the menu, the website showed Wednesday.

The latest lettuce scare, however, is likely to be short lived, said BTIG LLC restaurant analyst Peter Saleh, noting that Panera, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. and Wendy’s Co. probably have the most romaine on their menus of the large chains.

“For the near term, you could have some consumers shying away from some of the salad concepts,” he said. “You probably won’t see much of an impact in the numbers for the vast majority of the companies.”

Wendy’s says its restaurants in the U.S. and Canada are throwing away all romaine lettuce and making its salads and sandwiches with iceberg only — it’s not selling any Caesar salads, spokeswoman Heidi Schauer said in an email.

But this outbreak, with 32 reported cases including 13 hospitalizations, didn’t scare away Chipotle diner Matt Greene, a 25-year-old software developer. He said he wasn’t concerned about the risk at the Chicago location, which posted a sign apologizing for the lack of romaine lettuce.

“It sucks,” he said, but “it’s not a huge part of my diet.”

He planned to order a steak burrito with queso sauce, cheese, black beans and white rice — no lettuce.

–With assistance from Deena Shanker.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

This article was written by Leslie Patton from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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