Dickey’s Barbecue in Hot Water over Tainted Iced Tea

by Daniel Vaughn · August 18, 2014

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.

Dickeys iced tea

Dickey’s Barbecue in South Jordan, Utah. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

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.



    Ken Goldenberg says:

    The fact that the manager did not throw away the tainted sugar is astonishing! It will interesting to see why.

      Gino Lee says:

      despite knowing that the sugar was tainted, the manager did not dispose of it ? what the .. ?
      so the question is, why did the manager NOT dispose of what was obviously a tainted and harmful substance ?
      this boggles the mind.
      i can’t fathom what was going through that manager’s head..

    BOSBBQ says:

    As if Dickey’s BBQ wasn’t bad enough as it is!

    Ashley Oviatt says:

    If the manager left the tainted sugar out for another employee to use it, they should be held responsible. There is another factor here which is that in Utah, most people there do not drink iced tea, and don’t know how to make it properly. I’m sure that it wasn’t intentional to put poison in the iced tea, and I can see how someone who has no idea how to make it could make a mistake like that.

    HonestTX_Proud says:

    If you are going to Dickies you are expendable anyway. Used to be a nice place. But since they decided to get rich the food sucks the big bone and the service is worse.

    Gino Lee says:

    new slogan for dickey’s sweet tea: “one sip will knock you over.”
    i’m not a food services person, but leaving unlabeled containers of sodium hydroxide lying around seems like gross negligence to me.

    Was the unlabelled sodium hydroxide container a freak accident or was it Dickey’s practice to routinely unmark poisonous/hazardous substances ? This would be important in determining whether the gross negligence was at the individual restaurant level or at the chain level.

    In any case, it sounds like the accident was entirely preventable/avoidable by both labelling the sodium hydroxide correctly and keeping it physically at a distance from the food.

    as an example, I find that if I keep my bleach out of my refrigerator and make sure it’s clearly labelled, that generally keeps me from accidentally ingesting it as a possible drink..

    James Dean says:

    Charges filed??? If not, why???

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