Sheetz chain responds to string of sick customers

ALTOONA, PA: Convenience store operator Sheetz Inc. moved quickly to allay public concerns about an outbreak of salmonella traced to tomatoes that it sold in its Western Pennsylvania stores.

ALTOONA, PA: Convenience store operator Sheetz Inc. moved quickly to allay public concerns about an outbreak of salmonella traced to tomatoes that it sold in its Western Pennsylvania stores.

Reports of people getting sick started to emerge on July 9. On July 14, the state Department of Health informed Sheetz that the problem could have originated with Roma tomatoes the chain used in sandwiches.

Sheetz that day issued a press release about the problem and removed the tomatoes from its 300 locations. The company also turned to Burson-Marsteller's Chicago office for crisis communications help.

Company senior executives began discussing the crisis at their regular, daily 4pm meeting, with Burson staffers sitting in via phone, explained Steve Sheetz, chairman.

Company executives quickly decided to tell the public what they knew about the problem, said Sheetz. "When we have any information, we're going to share it," he said.

On Sunday, July 18, Sheetz and other senior executives visited stores in the area where the salmonella outbreak had hit, informing members of the Pittsburgh and regional media that they would be eating lunch at their stores, Sheetz said.

All media calls were referred to Sheetz or two other senior executives, he said. (The company has one in-house PR person, Nena Ellis.)

As of July 19, the state had 70 confirmed cases in the outbreak and traced the cause to a shipment of tomatoes sent to Sheetz.

The company issued a release that day with the information from the state and details of what it had done to find a new supplier.

"I feel like the problem is behind us," Sheetz said. "Consumer confidence always lags that. We have to see what we need to do to bring the consumer back."

Business at Sheetz stores hit a low point July 17, the day before the press event, he said.

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