Taco Bell employee posts this photo on social media. (Photo: Consumerist)
UNDATED (USA TODAY) -- Here's a Taco Bell employee who was thinking a bit too outside the bun.
On Monday, the Consumerist, a blog that's a subsidiary of Consumer Reports, posted a hard-to-swallow photo of a Taco Bell employee holding a long stack of about 25 empty taco shells while licking them with his long tongue fully exposed.
The posting - which the employee originally posted on his Facebook page, has since gone seriously viral. The situation is eerily reminiscent of a video from 2009 that a Domino's Pizza employee posted of another worker putting pizza cheese into his nose and blowing mucous on a sandwich. The unfortunate message to consumers: Unhappy fast-food employees will do disgusting things to the food they sell.
"It's not a brand problem - it's a brand practices problem," says Erika Napoletano, a brand strategy consultant. "If you hire people who treat your brand as disposable, that's the kind of PR you'll get."
To its credit, Taco Bell responded quickly.
"We have strict food and handling procedures and zero tolerance for any violations," Taco Bell says in a statement. The company insists that the franchisee - whose name and location it hasn't revealed - did not serve the taco shells to any customers. "They were used for training only and in the process of being thrown out," the company says.
Taco Bell declined to specify whether the employees behind the photo were fired. "We will not tolerate this type of behavior, and particularly its impressions on our customers, fans, franchisees and team members." The statement says, "We are working with the franchisee to take appropriate action against everyone involved."
Is that enough to satisfy consumers?
Probably not, says PR consultant Chris Ann Goddard. While the response was rapid, she says, "Who really knows if the tacos were served or not?"
Taco Bell will see incidents like this repeat if it doesn't change its hiring practices, says Napoletano. "You need to hire people who hold as much integrity for your brand as you do," she says.
Besides the need for Taco Bell to establish clearer guidelines for its workers, the brand needs to make even more clear to consumers that this is "not a normal occurrence," Goddard says. "People need to feel comfortable in whatever they purchase, whether it's pudding or tacos. This picture is pretty wild."