No Sprouts

Why the fast-casual sandwich shop Jimmy John’s struggled with selling sprouts for so long, despite their obvious health risks.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: As someone who just turned 40 this year, I’m of a certain old (possibly even geriatric) Millennial era where I’m old enough to have seen things but young enough that most of those things are still around. One example of such a thing: Jimmy John’s. A popular sandwich chain noted for its fast delivery times, this franchise came into my life when I was a midwesterner in college and its menus became ubiquitous sights in dorm room nightstands all throughout the residential halls. It still exists, and is still basically the same … except for one very specific thing: the sprouts. As this popular sandwich chain has evolved from a college-town curiosity into a national powerhouse that made its founder a billionaire, the sprouts didn’t make the trip unscathed. And there’s a reason for that. Today’s Tedium discusses how sprouts became the forbidden fruit of Jimmy John’s. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is from a video showing how clover sprouts are grown; this process is also a great way to grow bacteria.

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Alfalfa sprouts

Some alfalfa sprouts on display. (via PxFuel)

Why sprouts used to be a really attractive ingredient for sandwich shops

When allowed to grow fully, the alfalfa sprout turns into a flowering plant, one that is particularly important for foraging—it can be used as hay, stored as animal feed, and given to livestock whenever necessary.

It’s particularly useful as a crop that helps that livestock properly produce fertilizer, and it can grow during periods even when other plants are struggling.

But when acquired for the purpose of being a sandwich vegetable, alfalfa adds a little bit of crunch but not a lot of calories. A cup of sprouts is just 8 calories, an amount that for most people will be barely noticeable. But it feels like a lot more. In a way, it’s kind of like you’re eating the basic elements of nutrients.

And that has given it a reputation as a superfood. Doug Evans, a nutritionist best known for founding the infamous startup Juicero, wrote an entire book about sprouts last year in which he made a very passionate case for them as the center of a diet.

“For all intents and purposes, if you ate sprouts for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack, you would barely get eight hundred calories into your system (and feel full) but the equivalent of three thousand to four thousand calories of nutrition relative to other foods,” he wrote.

Now, I’m not going to claim that Jimmy John’s, or any other sandwich chain, decided to get into sprouts in an effort to sell you a superfood. But I have to imagine a guy who was developing a sandwich shop on the tightest of margins, with a limited menu, probably thought that adding sprouts to his sandwiches was a good idea. (Jimmy John Liautaud famously developed his business after being given a modest loan from his father for a hot dog stand, but switched to sandwiches because he didn’t have the money for a hot dog stand. The bet worked out; according to Forbes, he bought out his father after year two.)

It stood out, it was an interesting texture, and it made the sandwiches more filling.

Jimmy Johns Sprouts

A Jimmy John’s sandwich with sprouts on it. The chain, and its customers, infamously found the sprouts hard to quit. (littledebbie11/Flickr)

The challenges of creating sprouts that don’t make people sick

Sprouts are interesting-looking, they’re cheap, and they add texture.

But sprouts are extremely finicky, and a big part of the reason for this is that the very thing that helps them grow is the exact same thing that can foster a bacteria outbreak. As Jane Hart of the Michigan State University Extension program (go Spartans!) wrote for Food Safety News in 2017:

Any produce that is eaten raw or only lightly cooked carries with it a risk of foodborne illness. Sprouts especially seem to be vulnerable because they need warmth and humidity to sprout, which is exactly what bacteria like salmonella and E. coli need to grow. With enough time in the temperature “danger zone”—40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit—that the seeds need to sprout, they can become a petri dish of bacteria.

You can’t avoid diseases created from sprouts by simply washing the surface, as you can with many foods. Sprouts are young, and since they’re growing at the same time as the bacteria, it’s often the case that they end up directly inside the sprout, where they can’t be washed out.

(Irradiation is an effective option, but it’s worth keeping in mind that we have folks who drink raw milk because it’s more real, despite the fact that we’ve known pasteurization improves milk safety for more than a century.)

Mike Doyle, who spent years leading the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia before retiring in 2017, spent decades researching E. coli, one of the primary health risks created by contaminated produce. He recommends against pre-cut produce, and says it’s safer to cook it, but that obviously isn’t easy when produce is generally served raw.

Alfalfa sprouts close up

(Hans/Pixabay)

But Doyle has special concerns about sprouts. In an interview with his former university, Doyle referred to raw sprouts as one of the most hazardous types of foods.

“The problem is contaminated seeds that are placed in warm water where the sprouts grow. But the conditions are ideal for the bacteria to grow, too,” Doyle said. “Often, only a few seeds are contaminated, so you can’t simply test a few to see if there is a contamination.”

Now, take something that’s already hard to sanitize and add the challenges of consistency created by the franchise-based food system, and you have a recipe for disaster.

17+

The number of states where Jimmy John’s restaurants saw outbreaks related to foodborne pathogens between 2013 and 2020, according to an FDA complaint. In nearly every case, the primary cause of the outbreaks was the restaurant’s use of sprouts (although cucumbers were also mentioned as a potential source).

Jimmy Johns logo

(Jason Pier/Flickr)

Jimmy John’s was so desperate to keep sprouts that it switched its plant of choice

So, to be clear, it wasn’t exactly a surprise that sprouts were a major source of foodborne illnesses—it was a point of criticism among epidemiologists and food safety experts for years. (Of course, Doyle has said similar things about raw spinach, and it hasn’t stopped us from eating salad.)

But the problem was likely compounded by the fact that the sprouts weren’t a particularly mainstream food. For years, they were the domain of health food fanatics (and they still kind of are, for the reasons I listed above). But Jimmy John’s was having a moment around 2010, with more than 1,100 restaurants generating sales of $780 million that year. The company was partially owned by private equity, and it was in places well beyond the company’s college-town roots. As a chain, it had grown as large as some of the fast-food giants that towered over it decades prior.

But when you grow that large, things become harder to manage, especially in a chain where consistency means everything. Around this time, for example, some Minneapolis locations attempted to unionize, at a time when fast food unionization efforts were rare. And at the end of 2010, a major outbreak of salmonella hit Jimmy John’s home state of Illinois, sickening 140 people.

Quickly, it became clear the sprouts were the problem—and the company immediately responded by dropping alfalfa sprouts from its menu. Despite the health risks, this was an unpopular move, in part because of the popularity of the sprouts. It was that little extra thing at the top that made the sandwich chain unique. After all, it wasn’t like you could get sprouts from Subway. Or Jersey Mike’s. Or Quizno’s.

The chain had other things to make itself unique—including the limited delivery area, which makes it possible to get a sandwich delivered in five minutes or less—but the sprouts carried quite a hold on people.

Fittingly, the company’s first instinct was to try to find an alternative. In January of 2011, the company announced that it was replacing the alfalfa sprouts with clover sprouts, a completely different variety of plant that nonetheless offered a similar kind of crunch.

“I am excited about this win win,” Liautaud said in a statement amid this announcement. “Sprout lovers, come and get it. Your clover sprouts await.”

Now, this logically seems like a good way to handle a problem like this—if one kind of sprout is a problem, go for a rough equivalent and keep customers happy. But there was just one problem—the issue of foodborne illnesses from sprouts is not unique to alfalfa. The issue rather, is the sprouts themselves … which again, are grown in an environment that is highly susceptible to fostering bacteria at the exact same time. FDA warnings about sprouts as a food category were already common, and grocery chains like Kroger had actually removed sprouts from its stores because of health risks during this period. In fact, the International Sprout Growers Association was trying to play defense around the time that Jimmy John’s launched its clover sprouts, the subject of an article titled, “Are Sprouts Safe?

In the case of Jimmy John’s, the chain felt that because clover sprouts were easier to clean, they would be less likely to run into foodborne illness issues. Just one problem: Another outbreak happened in 2012, and it was directly blamed on said clover sprouts.

Jimmy John Liautaud

Jimmy John Liautaud, the founder of Jimmy John’s. (NIU College of Business/Flickr)

The reputation of Liautaud’s restaurant chain was on the line, and the company was facing lawsuits. Understandably, he made the call around this time to stop selling sprouts entirely.

“Jimmy decided he was tired of the negative press from it and he thinks sprouts aren’t necessary for Jimmy John’s to rock,” one franchise owner told the Kirksville Daily Express.

But the lack of sprouts never sat well with some fans of the restaurant, and at one point, the company got sued over not having sprouts, likely the result of restaurants that were slow to replace menus.

So, stuck between a rock and a sprout place, the company brought back sprouts in 2014 … but made them optional, and required customers to acknowledge that they were doing so at their own risk. And as a part of the settlement, Jimmy John’s gave consumers disappointed about the prior loss of sprouts a $1.40 voucher as a result.

To paraphrase Ed Robertson, the lunch, it's so dangerous, you'll have to sign a waiver.

And despite the warnings and concerns about sprouts, they continued to be consumed by people who had to have been aware of the dangers of eating the sprouts, given the widespread attention the story had gotten, but chose to continue purchasing it on sandwiches anyway. And outbreaks, inevitably, kept happening.

But by 2020, the Food and Drug Administration had seen enough. In February of last year, just before COVID-19 quarantines began in earnest, the food regulators sent a strongly worded letter to the restaurant chain after yet another outbreak of E. coli. The company had worked with the FDA on an alternative to alfalfa sprouts, but the chain had failed to maintain its use of agreed-upon suppliers among franchisees.

“Although you stated that corrective actions were implemented following the 2019 and 2012 outbreaks, you have not provided FDA with any information demonstrating long-term, sustainable corrections have been implemented throughout your organization to prevent this violation from recurring in the future,” the FDA stated in its warning letter.

But by the time this warning letter came along, the environment that led to this situation had changed. (But not quickly enough, as another outbreak surfaced just after the letter was sent.) The year before, Jimmy John Liautaud had sold his shares of the company he started to Inspire Brands, a holding company that owns a lot of well-known restaurant chains, most famously Dunkin’ and Arby’s. The sale made Liautaud a billionaire. Fittingly for a restaurant chain that signs billion-dollar checks, the new owners did not mess around, taking sprouts off the menu entirely last year.

The case was made repeatedly that sprouts were an intrinsic part of the appeal of Jimmy John’s sandwiches, but when stress tested by multiple foodborne illness outbreaks, it was proven that it perhaps wasn’t the case.

The downside about the sprout saga is that, if not for that, there would be a lot to respect about the success of Jimmy John’s.

The original store, with its owner’s infamously limited budget for launching a restaurant, was a great example of ingenuity at a time when ingenuity was in short supply and a less-capable founder might have failed.

Decades before social networks like Facebook leveraged the same strategy, the restaurant chain leveraged the power of college towns, so that when people graduated from a given school, they carried their memories of getting a sub delivered to them in just a handful of minutes. Other chains, such as the Mexican restaurant chain Pancheros, directly copied the midwestern college town origin story when launching their own products.

And once the company built out that base, it was able to expand out to become a larger chain. And despite questionable past hobbies and choices of political donations, Liautaud very much built a successful restaurant chain from modest roots.

But the numerous sprout scares, in my mind, reflect the fact that it’s really hard to successfully run a franchise business at scale—a point that doesn’t absolve Jimmy John’s, but does explain why it became an issue in the first place. Compare this saga to a chain that reached similar heights in the 2010s, Chipotle—a company whose first restaurant was also launched near a college campus. Around 2016, a year in which the restaurant topped the 2,000-location mark for the first time, the company had a significant E. coli outbreak that eventually led to a significant fine.

Screen Shot 2021 08 25 at 12 50 09 AM

A tweet I found that really says it all.

To me, this saga of foodborne illness tells us a lot about human nature related to the airborne illness we’re currently dealing with at a much larger scale. Fast-food chains are designed around consistent kitchens, consistent products, and food safety standards that are under a single entity’s management and control. And even they had a hard time making it work, even in an environment that should presumably be held to higher standards because it’s one that the company itself created, complete with signs with cheesy logos, photos of the founder with his ingredients, and uniform designs.

And despite all that, the company still found itself running into the same issue repeatedly, with consumers still wanting the thing that was shown to be at high risk of making them sick—to the point that they were willing to sue if they could not get it.

I think the parallel to the modern pandemic is that, unlike the relatively controlled environment of a fast-casual restaurant, the pandemic is still ever-changing and an uncontrolled risk.

Despite that obvious risk, people are still coming in, asking for the usual, refusing to change their habits.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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