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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry —
Ruby Tuesday’s Rick Johnson

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 4, 2007

As part of our effort to better understand food safety procedures at foodservice operators we’ve run a series of Pundit Pulses. Del Taco’s Janet Erickson and Notre Dame’s Dan Crimmins started us off with the perspectives of two smaller operators but with both individuals very focused on produce. Then Michael Spinazzola of Diversified Restaurant Systems gave us his take as the supplier to Subway Restaurants. Then Maurice Totty of Foodbuy, the purchasing arm of the Compass Group, provided us with the take of a massive organization with many different concepts.

Now Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, interviews Rick Johnson at Ruby Tuesday for our first “grill and bar” concept. With a more diverse menu than a quick-service restaurant and a large scale, with company stores and franchises, Ruby Tuesday faces a range of food safety challenges.

The Pundit would like to express deep appreciation to Janet, Dan, Michael, Maurice and Rick as well as to the organizations they work with for stepping up to the plate and talking about real issues in food safety in a forum such as this, where the whole industry can benefit. This willingness to speak out is a contribution to a better industry and a safer food supply.


Rick Johnson
Senior Vice President of Supply Systems
Ruby Tuesday, Maryville, Tennessee

Q: How critical is fresh produce to the company brand?

A: Freshness and high quality are two touchstones for the company. The salad bar is a very important part of our operation and brand. Approximately four out of ten guests order the salad bar either as an add-on or an entrée. We’ve had a salad bar continuously from our second year in business. It gives Ruby Tuesday’s an association with fresh product. Key markers also include fresh proteins.

Q: How is food safety integrated into your procurement structure?

A: As an executive officer of the company, one of my primary responsibilities is management of the supply chain and quality assurance. I’ve played a role on staff or as a consultant since 1972 when the company was founded. The procurement structure is the same for produce as all base products. Organization is broken out into sourcing, contract negotiation, replenishment, and distribution, and quality assurance follows in all steps. This is actually the case for all food products and non-food products.

Q: Do you deal directly with produce suppliers or farm out the responsibility to distributors?

A: We source, negotiate and execute contracts directly with suppliers, and outsource distribution. The distributor receives product from our suppliers, then warehouses and redistributes it to the restaurants. We have about 925 U.S. locations. Approximately two-thirds are company-owned, and the rest are franchised.

In the case of produce we have contracts with both growers and processors. It depends on the product and distribution network. We buy chopped lettuce, other value-added items, and bulk produce. In some rare instances we buy from a grower that doesn’t have certain capabilities so there may be a further entity involved.

Q: Do you have specific food safety procedures and auditing requirements to which your suppliers must adhere? Are you tightening measures since the outbreaks?

A: We require our suppliers to conduct third party audits at least annually and submit results for review. We also send out our own quality assurance people to facilities, fields, distribution centers and terminal markets. We haven’t changed our standards since the spinach outbreak because we were satisfied with what we had in place. Besides communicating those standards more clearly, we’ve done nothing significantly different.

Q: Industry food safety standards are varied and subjective. How does Ruby Tuesday determine what level of food safety should be required of its growers and processors? Does a foodservice operator like Ruby Tuesday really have a true understanding of what food safety mechanisms should be instituted at the grower/processor levels?

A: Ultimately, for the foreseeable future, responsibility for food safety practices has to rest with suppliers. Any of us in food service with companies like ours will never have as many people needed to be hands on in every facility like a manufacturer.

It is important to know that even though we have a certification process and a lot of guidelines and requirements in place, we still look to growers and processors to implement thorough, rigorous standards and practices for the highest integrity product. Short of taking over the operations ourselves, the responsibility has to rest in the hands of suppliers.

Q: Doesn’t the buyer have responsibility in raising the bar on food safety? After all, the foodservice operator determines which suppliers it chooses to buy from.

A: You have to start by accepting that you can’t compromise the safety of the product and the health and well being of the consumer on the basis of costs. It’s a fundamental truth to me, and one has to start there. The marketplace will figure out how to raise the standards, providing a very reasonable level of safety and integrity in the products, yet at the same time make them accessible and affordable.

Q: In the end, more stringent food safety standards come at a cost. What if a buyer is willing to purchase a lower priced product from a company with minimal, satisfactory food safety standards over a higher priced product from a company instigating upgraded standards?

A: If the industry doesn’t make those investments and continues to have safe products, ultimately there is a much larger financial loss. It doesn’t take many spinach outbreaks to put the industry in a very bad position. Food safety is an investment like all necessary product ingredients. Over time, as additional measures are put in place, costs will have to be evaluated. Certainly there will be food safety areas that involve capital investments, but there also may be other strategies to improve food safety, which don’t require additional cost. Bottom line, I can’t buy cheap product and compromise food safety.

Q: Even with the best plans and intentions, foodborne illness does occur. Crisis management has been a big topic of discussion, with questions raised on how Taco Bell handled its recent outbreak. Have you ever had to deal with any food outbreaks?

A: Fortunately, we’ve never dealt with a widespread outbreak of foodborne illness. Yet 34 years in business, we’ve faced a number of food crisis management issues. We live in a time of tremendous media exposure, instant deadlines and coverage spread across a wide array of outlets. This is something everyone is aware of. It requires companies and individuals involved to be forthright and prompt in their response, but not respond without information and facts. There are a lot of opportunities for negative coverage, misunderstanding, and mistrust from the public when initial information is not accurate.

If there is one lesson, it is important to be 100 percent accurate when releasing information in the early stages of these outbreaks. The problem is that investigations are complex and time consuming, requiring trace backs involving multiple resources, gathering evidence, conducting tests and analysis, and all those processes don’t happen in the first hour or 24 hours.

On one hand, the company must be candid, forthright, speak quickly and provide as much information as possible, but it’s ok to say, ‘This is what we know, this is what we don’t know, and this is what we’re doing about it.’

We believe as a foodservice company that our guests hold us directly responsible for the safety and integrity of products we’re serving. We can say that we received the product from an outside supplier and it was contaminated when we received it. But ultimately, we served it and we must take responsibility.

Q: Do you have any examples of how Ruby Tuesday’s responded in a crisis?

A: There was a hoax at a Ruby Tuesday’s in South Carolina where someone put a rodent on the salad bar. The Associated Press picked up the story and the news spread.

We were bombarded by reporters asking all kinds of questions, trying to get us to name suppliers. We never released names. There was no reason to identify the supplier. It wasn’t relevant and only opened the door to direct culpability.

In crisis management there are general rules, but every situation is specific. I’m not pointing fingers at Taco Bell or any other company.

The media was on a hunt to name culprits in the spinach outbreak. When the FDA was looking into ranches in Salinas, it was one step in the investigation, but that didn’t prove anything. The whole investigation was being played out over a truncated period of time, but everyone was looking for an instant answer; what’s the cause?

Sometimes that information is not immediately known, or may never be known. Divulging and identifying names of potentially liable companies, and beaming the spotlight on those fields turned out to be hurtful and unproductive.

Q: How do these outbreaks impact customers? After the spinach E. coli scare, did you experience a backlash in produce ordering at your restaurants?

A: We were very proactive in responding to the spinach crisis.

FDA made the announcement 9:30 or 10:00 Thursday evening, and on Friday, Ruby Tuesday’s had no spinach in the salad bar mix, it was off the menu and out of restaurants. We didn’t see salad bar sales decline, and life went on.

In this most recent outbreak with Taco Bell, we saw no significant increase in guest comments. We do hear through feedback in our management team that guests are more aware of food safety issues and are concerned produce is safe.

You saw reaction in the grocery stores with consumers shying away from all spinach products, even when they weren’t related to the outbreak. I’m not saying people will stop eating fresh vegetables by any means. But food borne illness is on the radar screen for the mass media, and it will be reported.

These outbreaks unfold in the context of bird flu and some continuing concern of mad cow disease. Simultaneously, concerns fester about chemical additives and transfats in foods, and people are more interested in the healthfulness, integrity, freshness and quality of food.

Q: So consumers are at once conflicted between eating more produce for health reasons and grappling with the knowledge that produce comes with food safety risks?

A: Granted, evidence abounds that transfats can have an impact on health, but food outbreaks happen immediately and with serious widespread consequences in short time frames. It’s still difficult for consumers to be as concerned about the gradual effect of eating fattening, unhealthy foods that lead to chronic diseases years down the line. We’ve learned that many consumers just don’t want to hear about it.

We went through an experimental stage of listing calories and nutritional information on the menu or putting a guide on the table. Over a period of time we learned most guests just don’t want that information. And those who want it ask and we provide it to them.

Q: How have the recent food outbreaks changed customer perceptions of produce?

A: There is not much question that public awareness of produce to be the source of foodborne illeness is greater than it’s ever been. It may sound simple minded, but I believe a large segment of the public knew proteins could be linked to foodborne illness, but didn’t see the dangers with produce. Now consumers know you can get sick and maybe even die from produce and there is a growing expectation from the public to insure those products are safe.

Q: Where does the government come in?

A: Don’t think the private sector expects the government to ride in on a white horse and solve everybody’s problems. There is lots of precedent to say that’s not likely. Government can play a role in establishing uniformed regulations, guidelines and inspection practices, but once again, responsibility rests on growers, processors and manufacturers. Suppliers and those buying the products need to come together on some relatively common acceptable standards. This happened to some extent on the protein side, albeit a little less for seafood.

Q: Will consumers look to the government for food safety, security and reassurance?

A: Consumers no longer have the same expectations in government’s ability to protect them. Katrina eroded the public confidence that government could play big brother and make everything ok. Consumers will look to grocery chains and foodservice to increase levels of inspections and safeguards and do more in their view to make products safe. If we don’t respond to consumer feelings, the industry will be in serious trouble.

Rick’s comments are thoughtful and remind us of a few salient truths:

Ultimately, for the foreseeable future, responsibility for food safety practices has to rest with suppliers. Any of us in food service with companies like ours will never have as many people needed to be hands on in every facility like a manufacturer.

It is important to know that even though we have a certification process and a lot of guidelines and requirements in place, we still look to growers and processors to implement thorough, rigorous standards and practices for the highest integrity product. Short of taking over the operations ourselves, the responsibility has to rest in the hands of suppliers.

Safe product isn’t produced by auditors, but by producers. Yet, it is also true that:

You have to start by accepting that you can’t compromise the safety of the product and the health and well being of the consumer on the basis of costs. It’s a fundamental truth to me, and one has to start there.

Rick also puts his finger on a sea change in consumer attitudes:

Now consumers know you can get sick and maybe even die from produce and there is a growing expectation from the public to insure those products are safe.

So product has to be made safe by producers, but operators have to pay the bill to get the right stuff — no compromise on that — and we all better do the right thing because consumers have been sensitized to the issue.

Great stuff. Thanks again to Rick and to Ruby Tuesday. Your willingness to be heard is helping us build a safer for all consumers.

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