Starbucks’ rollout of its first chicken sandwich was derailed at the end of June by a quality issue, according to the company. A barista at a New England Starbucks told Restaurant Dive she and at least four other coworkers became sick after trying the Chicken, Maple Butter & Egg Sandwich, which debuted nationwide on June 21. Copies of a company message to employees viewed by Restaurant Dive show the sandwich was pulled on June 26.
“Do not donate, sell or allow anyone to eat any of this product,” Starbucks wrote to employees.
The company instructed employees to immediately throw away all impacted products, which Starbucks defined as sandwiches with an expiration date up to and including Oct. 14.
“We issued a voluntary stop sell and discard on the Chicken, Maple Butter and Egg Sandwich because product didn’t meet Starbucks quality standards,” a Starbucks spokesperson wrote in an email.
The Starbucks barista said she fell violently ill after trying the sandwich on June 23.
“I was experiencing extreme food poisoning symptoms,” the barista said. “Vomiting, diarrhea, then dehydration started to kick in the next day. And I could not go into my shift the next morning.”
The barista ultimately missed three shifts due to illness she attributed to the sandwich. Four of her coworkers also tried the sandwich and experienced varying degrees of sickness.
The chicken sandwich launch was part of Starbucks’ larger push to improve food sales. On Starbucks’ Q2 2022 earnings call in May, then-CEO Kevin Johnson said Starbucks saw strong growth in food sales, especially on orders coupling food with drinks. The company has been trying to bolster its food sales for years, introducing a fresh lunch program called “Mercato” in 2017, though the specific program appears to be discontinued. Links to Mercato’s promotions page are redirected to show Starbucks current lunch line-up, including warm sandwiches and protein boxes.
“Our average ticket continued to grow, reaching an all-time high, driven by strategic beverage pricing and another record-breaking quarter of food attach with food sales increasing 25% from the prior year,” Johnson said during the earnings call.
The barista, who is a vegetarian, told Restaurant Dive that workers were excited about the sandwich as well, enough that her coworkers persuaded her to try the menu item without the chicken patty on it.
“A lot of places were really hyping it up. Because it's the first time Starbucks has done anything with chicken,” the barista said.
The worker said she had not heard of customers getting sick after eating the sandwich, though she said such complaints would likely go through district or regional managers rather than frontline staff.
In late June, however, commenters on Starbucks’ subreddit claimed the sandwich had made them ill, and that some patties weren’t completely cooked.
The barista noted the company’s lack of specificity regarding the quality issue left workers with questions. Starbucks did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding employee communications.