The Gardenburger Mess — How Not to Handle a Crisis

It started last weekend, when small signs at Burgerville outlets notified customers that the chain was temporarily taking Gardenburgers off the menu. The story picked up steam when Burgerville placed a huge order with a small local meatless-patty manufacturer. Now, it’s exploded into public view as grocery giant Fred Meyer announces that it has pulled the product off its shelves.

From the outside, it appears that Kellogg, owner of Gardenburger, has done its best to keep the whole thing quiet. By attempting to sweep the issue under the rug, Kellogg has guaranteed an extra level of public attention — and done enormous unnecessary damage to Gardenburger’s reputation.

The story is still developing, but here’s how it looks right now:

1. More than a week ago, Burgerville workers unpacking the product noticed something they didn’t like. Burgerville officials contaced Kellogg, weren’t sastisfied with whatever they were told, and pulled the product. To its credit, Burgerville announced the change to its customers with signage at the stores.

2. A few days later, Burgerville announced that they would carry a different meatless burger — the first public indication that this problem might be a big one.

3. Later in the week, Kellogg announced a “voluntary withdrawal” of Gardenburgers, but refused to say why, beyond a vague statement that food safety was not an issue.

4. Kellogg apparently didn’t bother to mention any of this to the FDA. Charles Breen, the agency’s regional director, found out by reading about it in the Oregonian.

5. As of the time I write this, concerned customers who visit Gardenburger’s web site will find no information at all about the problem.

It is often the case (see Nixon, Richard) that when there’s bad news, a cover-up will make things much, much worse. Kellogg has lost their opportunity to have some control of the information flow.

This is in sharp contrast to Johnson & Johnson’s prompt and aggressive outreach following the Tylenol deaths of the early 80’s. Gardenburger should follow J & J’s playbook — tell the public exactly what the problem is and what they intend to do about it. The unnecessary damage they’re doing by remaining silent will haunt them for years.


Click this link to subscribe to Portland’s Finest Advertising Blog.

Request your free copy of my white paper, The Seven Deadly Advertising Mistakes and How to Fix Them here.

Got a question? Call me at 503-323-6553.


Sign up for my blog updates and never miss a post. I'll send you the first two chapters of my new book, Breakthrough Prospecting, as a thank-you.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Your Chance to Be Heard -- Comment Here!

6 thoughts on “The Gardenburger Mess — How Not to Handle a Crisis

  1. Across the country, here in PA I’ve been wondering why Gardenburger products disappeared from my local Wegman’s grocery – no signs, no explanations, just empty shelves in the freezer case (interesting that no other product has filled that space in the interim; the GB product tags on the shelves still remain). Over a month later, and there’s STILL no signage in the store, and nothing posted on GB’s or Kellogg’s websites.

    Agreed: silence at a time like this is foolish.

    I prefer GB to the other brands (including Kellogg’s Morningstar, which is preservative-laced despite being a frozen product, and generally more expensive than GB or Boca), but am buying Boca in the interim.

    Hmmm… pardon my tinfoil hat, but I wonder if this is a stealth tactic by Kellogg to push Morningstar into GB’s place… not a mere corporate absorption but a classic “buy out and kill off” competitive strategy. With that thought, here’s another, more insidious one: perhaps the “silence” is intentional – a “tarnish the reputation” product replacement strategy.

    (and maybe I’ve spent too many years in the corporate world…)

  2. Hello again…

    One correction, in the interests of honesty: I took a second look at a Morningstar package, and didn’t see any preservatives listed, so I stand corrected. But that product line still is more expensive than Boca is or Gardenburger was; and my other concerns and suspicions remain. And the silence still is deafening.