It was a potential public relations disaster: On Wednesday, a father posted on Twitter that the local burrito chain Boloco mistakenly contaminated his peanut-allergic daughter’s dinner with peanut sauce, triggering a terrifying trip to the emergency room.
The tweet could have set off a media maelstrom. But the company quickly kicked into high gear, with Boloco executives reaching out to the family, accepting responsibility for the mistake, and promising to transform the crisis into a teachable moment.
Boloco’s chief executive, John Pepper, said food allergy scares are one of the things that keep him up at night. “It’s a mistake that could be life-threatening, it’s scary for everybody.”
Aaron Williams and his wife are always careful when ordering food for their 8-year-old daughter, whose peanut allergy was diagnosed when she was a toddler. When they placed an online order for a burrito at the Atlantic Wharf Boloco at on Jan. 29, they made sure to notify the restaurant about her dietary restrictions, adding a note in the online order form.
So the Brookline father was horrified when his daughter bit into her meal and then asked her dad: “What’s this brown stuff?”
Williams took a bite and quickly realized it was peanut sauce. His daughter said her mouth and stomach felt tingly. Williams called her doctor, and then quickly called the restaurant to alert them to the problem.
“I said, ‘You have to pay attention to this,’ ” Williams said. “My biggest concern was that this was a major mess-up and they should know.”
The store manager apologized, but said there was nothing they could do, aside from offering to refund Williams’s money.
Two hours later, Williams’s daughter began breaking out in hives. Williams administered an EpiPen and took her to the emergency room at Boston Children’s Hospital. His daughter ended up being fine, but when they left the hospital around midnight, Williams thought about the store manager’s response again and became irate. A refund is a nice gesture, but not when someone’s life was on the line.
So Williams took to Twitter the following day, telling the company that its response was “not acceptable.”
Boloco noticed it quickly. The company’s chief operating officer, Matt Taylor, told Williams in a tweet to immediately contact him and offered his phone number and e-mail.
Pepper, the company’s chief executive, caught wind of the incident as he was boarding a plane. He tracked down Williams via LinkedIn while he was in the air and promised to call him immediately upon landing. After they spoke, Pepper wrote a lengthy post about the situation on his blog, and then retweeted Williams’s original complaint with a link to his response.
“As a parent, this situation is a worst nightmare,” Pepper tweeted. “As Boloco, it’s tempting to keep this quiet. But food allergies are serious and awareness leads to better solutions.”
Pepper’s blog post outlined the many errors that led to the mistake, from the misreading of the allergy warning by the person who prepared the food to the store manager’s failure to alert senior management about the incident. He took the blame for the mishap and said that all 150 staff had been told about the error. He also said he plans to provide further food safety training about allergens to his staff.
“Not only did we jeopardize someone’s life and health, but we jeopardized our business,” Pepper said in an interview. “That can’t be taken seriously enough.”
Chris Muller, a professor in the Boston University School of Hospitality Administration, said the increasing number and complexity of food-related health issues is one of the greatest challenges in running a restaurant right now. Companies that once specialized in setting quality assurance standards for workers at nuclear power plants and airlines are creating training programs for the restaurant industry.
“We are quickly becoming challenged to build our business model to be ‘zero defect’ tolerant,” he said. “There are more than 15,000 restaurants in Massachusetts alone, all serving hundreds of meals every day, what is amazing is that accidents such as this one are so rarely reported. Add to that the global supply chain of the products we use and the expanded list of customer demands, and it is remarkable how complex the simple serving of a burrito has become.”
That said, when it comes to dealing with a health scare, particularly in the quick-moving digital age, Muller said the Boloco’s quick response was spot on.
Pepper’s swift and public action stands in contrast to an similar incident at Panera Bread that took place in 2016.
In that case, a family placed an online order at the Natick Panera specifying that their child had a peanut allergy. The child bit into her grilled cheese sandwich only to discover that it had been slathered with peanut butter on the inside.
The Panera store manager apologized and blamed the problem on language issues. But when the family approached Panera about the incident, Panera executives said it was a matter for the owner of the Natick franchise to address.
The family is now suing Panera and the franchise group for negligence, breach of the implied warranties of fitness and merchantability, intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, and assault. A trial date is set for September.
Williams said he isn’t interested in suing Boloco, which he has patronized since it was a single store known as The Wrap in Cleveland Circle. “I’m upset about it, but, at the same time, their response has been great so far, so I’m hopeful,” he said.