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IRVINE, Calif. – Social media quickly went abuzz Sunday over a photo of a young man in a Taco Bell uniform that was posted on the company's public Facebook page. It showed the employee licking a stack of taco shells. Within a day, the world's mass media charged in as the photo went viral. "Spit looks to be Taco Bell's secret ingredient," cried the New York Daily News in its title. "Photo of Taco Bell worker licking shells sends shudders," wrote USAToday. "Shocking picture of Taco Bell employee," wrote Britain's Daily Mail.
The left side of the employee's face was fully shown and recognizable in the photo (a distorted portion of the photo as it appeared in Facebook is posted on Blue MauMau).
Worried that customers may begin avoiding its restaurants, a spokesperson for the brand on Monday vowed that the firm would in short order find out what happened.
Irvine-based Taco Bell, a division of Yum Brands (NYSE:YUM), now says that it was an employee of one of its franchised restaurants who is in the photo. The photograph on a Facebook page, posted by a "Jj O'Brien Nolan", was meant for a contest to illustrate just how great Taco Bell's new Doritos flavored taco shells are. The shells were used in the restaurant for training purposes and "were in the process of being thrown out," states Taco Bell. The employee apparently couldn't resist licking them as they were going out to be destroyed.
Whether well intentioned or not, the foodservice employee has been suspended by the franchise owner and is in the process of being terminated. The brand and the franchise cannot afford to associate with such action.
Here is Taco Bell's latest statement:
What is the Issue?
On June 2nd, we learned of a photo circulating online illustrating a Taco Bell restaurant team member violating our food handling procedures with a stack of taco shells.
Our food handling procedures are strict and we have zero tolerance for any violations. In the spirit of full transparency, we want to inform you of what we know in order to respond to customers' questions on our social media channels.
How Did this Happen?
The taco shells were used for training in March before we launched a new product, and were in process of being thrown out. Two employees, however, used them to take a photo for an internal contest in which company and franchise employees could submit for approval photos of themselves enjoying their first bite of the product. The contest had clear guidelines about what was acceptable and unacceptable. This image was clearly unacceptable – it violated the rules and spirit of the contest, and the employees never submitted it. But an employee posted it on a personal social media page in violation of the franchisee's policies, and it emerged online in social media.
What we did
We immediately investigated the situation and learned these facts from our franchisee. We are continuing our investigation and our franchisee is cooperating fully.
Our first question was, were the taco shells served to customers? In short, absolutely not. The taco shells were sent to restaurants for training purposes before the new product launch, so team members could use them to practice making the new product before it became available to the public. These shells were a part of that training, were never intended to be served to customers, and were discarded. This is standard operating procedure, and our franchisee confirmed this protocol.
What We're Doing
We do not believe these employees harmed, or intended to harm, anyone. But we deplore the impressions this has caused to our customers, fans, franchisees, and team members. The behavior is unacceptable for people working in a restaurant. Our franchisee is responsible for the employment and conduct of his restaurant's employees and he has informed us that he immediately suspended the employee shown in the photo and is in the process of terminating his employment. The employee who took the photo no longer works there. As we complete our investigation we will work with our franchisee to implement any additional action we find appropriate to address this situation and ensure it never happens again.