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Sheetz officials sink their teeth into a public relations problem

The comment that floored Steve Sheetz yesterday came when he was standing behind the counter of the Sheetz convenience store in Irwin.

A customer at the store cheerfully assured him she wasn't worried about the food at Sheetz -- because she gets diarrhea from her own cooking all the time.

"That's more than I need to know," he said, laughing.

The past several days, though, haven't been so funny for the Sheetz family.

On Monday, Stan Sheetz, president of Sheetz Inc., received a phone call that people were getting sick from the food at his convenience stores. "Suddenly we're getting calls from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and we say, 'Oh, no,' " he said.

The sickness was salmonellosis. The state linked the outbreak to a strain of the bacteria called Javiana salmonella, which has been linked to Roma tomatoes. On Wednesday, within four hours of receiving that information, Sheetz said the company had removed all of the tomatoes and lettuce from all of the stores and warehouses.

Company officials, including Sheetz; his uncle, company chairman Steve Sheetz; and his cousin, Travis Sheetz, vice president of operations, traveled to some of their stores in Western Pennsylvania yesterday to thank customers for their continued patronage during the salmonella outbreak.

Stan Sheetz said the highest-ranking 15 people in the Altoona-based corporation make about 2,000 store visits every year, but yesterday they made a special effort.

"We thought we'd focus on Western Pennsylvania because the public relations haven't exactly been rosy," he said.

They also called out every television station and newspaper in the area to take pictures as the top corporate officials ate sandwiches, complete with lettuce and tomatoes.

Last year, corporate officers at Chi-Chi's restaurants stayed in the background, issuing written statements, during the first stages of a hepatitis A outbreak that killed four people and sickened 660. But Sheetz said that incident didn't dictate the way his company handled the salmonella outbreak.

"You look at it and say 'What's the right thing to do,' " he remarked as he ate a tuna salad sandwich with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and jalapeno peppers. "We are always concerned with the welfare of the employees and the customers."

Mike Magner, the company's director of safety and risk, said none of the employees complained when they were asked to stay all night to sanitize all of the food-handling equipment in the stores.

"On Wednesday, when we found out there's a particular strain of salmonella associated with those tomatoes, we said 'Let's get rid of all of them.' That's why we're confident to say it's safe to eat at Sheetz," Magner said.

As of Friday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 70 confirmed salmonellosis cases in the outbreak. The symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps for 12 to 72 hours. It can be fatal in unusual cases, but no deaths have been reported with the current outbreak.

Of the million meals served in any given week at the 300 Sheetz stores, Jill Wood, 20, of Irwin, said she eats at least two of them. Yesterday, Wood and her 14-month-old daughter, Savanah, ordered a steak and cheese sandwich at the computerized food-ordering station. Wood said she was never concerned about the food.

Sadie Roberts, 24, of Greensburg, also stopped into the Sheetz in Irwin. She was on her way to the Pirates game with her little sister and her grandmother.

She said she was also never worried.

"I've eaten worse," she said. "Come on, man, we still eat at Chi-Chi's. Bad things happen. Get over it."

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