Wendy's tries to undo harm from chili claim

Woman held, charged with $2.5 million attempt at extortion

By John Schmeltzer
Tribune staff reporter

Wendy's International Inc. on Friday said it will focus on rebuilding its reputation after a San Jose, Calif., woman who claimed she found a fingertip in a bowl of chili she ordered was charged with attempted grand theft.

The Columbus, Ohio-based hamburger chain said it was "thrilled" and "vindicated that an arrest had been made."

Las Vegas police on Friday were holding 39-year-old Anna Ayala without bail pending a Tuesday extradition hearing on a charge of attempted grand larceny. Prosecutors are accusing her of trying to extort $2.5 million from Wendy's. She also faces charges of grand larceny in connection with an unrelated real estate case.

The $100,000 reward Wendy's offered for information regarding the chili tampering on March 22 will not be distributed while police continue searching for the source of the 1 1/2-inch fingertip.

Ayala is being held without bail in Las Vegas pending a Tuesday extradition hearing. She is charged with attempted grand larceny in connection with an effort to allegedly extort $2.5 million from Wendy's and grand larceny in connection with an unrelated real estate case.

Losses suffered by the hamburger chain could be in the millions as it tries to determine how widespread fallout from the tampering case at one San Jose restaurant will be.

"We're still trying to assess to full impact," said Bob Bertini, a spokesman for Wendy's, who said the losses have been severe in the San Francisco Bay area. Sales have fallen by more than 50 percent at some of the chain's Bay Area restaurants, he said.

Bertini said Wendy's will reach out to customers in the 50 San Francisco-area stores beginning Saturday, offering free Junior Frosties and coupons. In addition, he said a deli-style sandwich will be tested in the San Francisco area to lure customers back to the restaurants, where some employees have been laid off and others have had their hours cut.

"The unfortunate thing was that Wendy's and its franchisees have been a victim of this situation," said Bertini. "And our employees are suffering because of it."

Still, crisis management experts said that Wendy's was doing too little to protect its reputation during the incident.

"There are things they should have done to keep people coming back to the restaurants," said Steven Fink, president of Lexicon Communications Corp. in Pasadena, Calif.

Fink handled crisis management issues for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska in 1989, the meltdown of the reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979 and the deaths and illness suffered by patrons of Jack in the Box restaurants a decade ago.

He said Wendy's should be copying Pat & Oscar's, a Southern California restaurant chain that served 55,000 people free meals over three days after an E. coli bacteria incident sickened hundreds. The response was an effort to assure residents that the restaurants were safe.

"And they failed to take any steps to assure their customers that it was safe to eat at Wendy's," said Fink.

"In the pitched battle between perception and reality, perception always wins. The perception was it was not safe to eat at Wendy's. Giving away milkshakes and coupons does not tell people Wendy's is a safe place to eat," he said.

Even on Friday, the chain relied upon the Santa Clara County district attorney's office to declare it safe to eat at Wendy's.

"America should go back to eating at Wendy's," said an assistant district attorney.

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Some earlier food scam attempts

Many people have tried to make a few bucks by planting dangerous items in food and drink, and some of them have landed in jail. Here are a few recent cases:

- 1988: An unemployed construction worker in Jacksonville, Fla., claimed he found a mouse in a can of Coors beer. He later apologized, pleaded guilty to extortion and product tampering and got 18 months in prison.

- 1993: Pepsi received a complaint that a consumer found a hypodermic needle in a can of Diet Pepsi. The claim generated copycat claims from about half of the continental U.S. in which people claimed finding a bullet, screws and even a crack-cocaine vial. Ultimately, dozens of people were arrested. Five days into the crisis, Pepsi shot film in its bottling plant that showed nothing could be inserted into a can in the manufacturing process. After showing the tape, Pepsi took out newspaper ads that read: "Pepsi is pleased to announce ... nothing. As America now knows, those stories about Diet Pepsi were a hoax."

- 1997: Michael Zanakis, a New York physician, was convicted of attempting to extort $5 million from McDonald's Corp. He was convicted of taking a rat's tail from the laboratory where he worked, deep-frying it and inserting it into some Happy Meal french fries he purchased for his son. He was given a sentence of 30 months.

- 2004: A mother and her son are accused of falsely claiming they found a mouse in the soup served to them at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Virginia Beach, Va., in an attempt to extort $500,000 from the restaurant. They are awaiting trial.

Published April 23, 2005