What a difference a few weeks can make. In late July, Dickey’s Barbecue, headquartered in Dallas, Texas, began a new national advertising campaign with the theme “We Know Barbecue.” They also announced that they expected their five hundredth store would open before 2014 came to a close. All of that excitement is now on hold as they deal with their most challenging public relations moment in the company’s seventy-three year history.
Last Sunday, Jan Harding and her husband Jim went to a Dickey’s Barbecue location in suburban Salt Lake City, Utah. They ordered their food, Jan got some sweet tea, and they sat down to eat. After one sip of the tea, Jan coughed and gagged and exclaimed to Jim ” I think I just drank acid.” Within three hours, her symptoms warranted a trip to the emergency room. She has remained in critical condition ever since.
The culprit was some misplaced powdered sodium hydroxide. Instead of sweetening the tea with sugar, an employee used the toxic lye-containing cleaner meant to be used for degreasing fryers. The immediate question was how could this mishap have taken place. How could someone mistakenly pour toxic chemicals into the iced tea? This mystery has been solved by former employee Rebecca Rackley. Authorities have confirmed that she mixed the contents of an unmarked box of sodium hydroxide, that she thought was sugar, into a larger bin of sugar. The mishap occurred over a month ago, and store manager quickly determined the sugar was tainted. Rackley claimed the manager “started throwing up and spitting into the sink” immediately after tasting it. Despite this, the manager did not dispose of the tainted sugar mixture.
Over a month later, the tainted sugar was still in the restaurant and was used in that toxic batch of iced tea.
Jan Harding remains in the hospital.
7/5: Former employee Rebecca Rackley unknowingly mixes sodium hydroxide into the sugar.
8/10: Jan Harding drinks the toxic tea, and “less than three hours after taking one sip of the poisoned tea she was fighting for her life.”
8/14: An endoscopy “determined Harding has deep, ulcerated burns in her upper esophagus.”
8/15: Dickey’s releases a statement saying “There is nothing more important to us than the trust and safety of our guests.”
8/15: Rebecca Rackley is questioned and admits to mixing sodium hydroxide into the sugar.
8/16: Jan Harding begins breathing on her own and utters a whisper in the hospital.
The restaurant has remained open since the incident. The identity of the manager who refused to dispose of the tainted sugar back in July is not know, nor is the identity of the employee who mixed the tainted sugar into the tea. No arrests or charges have been brought to date.