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The 7 Biggest Restaurant Scandals in America

From major mistakes in food preparation to mistreatment of customers, these cases rocked the industry.

If you love dining out, you probably want to know what's happening at your favorite restaurants and chains. You appreciate hearing when new, exciting items come to the menu, or when a scandal has rocked an establishment, which may change your dining out behavior. 

As anyone who's currently watching The Bear on Hulu knows, a lot happens behind the scenes at restaurants that customers may never find out. From kitchen drama to health code violations, poor treatment of customers, and even disgraceful or criminal behavior that leads to lawsuits and heated cases, the restaurant industry can be rife with scandals.

Read on to find out the biggest scandals that have rocked the American restaurant scene in recent years. And next, don't miss the 8 Worst Fast-Food Burgers to Stay Away From Right Now.

Fat-Shaming from Sweetgreen CEO

melissamn / Shutterstock

In 2021, everyone's favorite salad lunch spot got into hot water when CEO Jonathan Neman posted on LinkedIn what many took as fat-shaming commentary. "What if we made the food that is making us sick illegal," he wrote, seemingly thoughtfully. "What if we taxed processed food and refined sugar to pay for the impact of the pandemic?" Unfortunately, he followed that up with "78% of hospitalizations due to COVID are obese and overweight people," and questioned if there is an "underlying problem" tied to that statistic.  

The Infamous McDonald's Hot Coffee Incident

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If you don't remember this scandal from the '90s (which late-night talk show hosts had a lot of fun with at the time), here's a refresher. A 79-year-old woman sued McDonald's for $20,000 because of burns she suffered from accidentally spilling her coffee on her lap. In reality, she actually suffered third-degree burns that sent her to the hospital, nearly killed her, and required two years of medical treatment. McDonald's used to have a policy of keeping their coffee scalding hot—between 180°F and 190°F, apparently to avoid refills—and had received hundreds of complaints before this lawsuit. McDonald's lost and had to pay up $600,000 and also lower the temperature.

Shake Shack's Bun Scandal

shake shack cheeseburgers
Shake Shack / Facebook

Recently, chefs and restaurant owners have denounced one of the biggest staples at burger spots: the iconic Martin's potato rolls. Why? Reports showed that members of the Martin family have ties to the far-right Pennsylvania state senator Doug Mastriano. Shake Shack is one of the largest buyers of the buns, and while it brands itself as a champion of  LGBTQ+ rights and racial equality, the chain hasn't made any moves or public announcements of changing up its relationship with Martin's. They're still under fire as of this story.

Papa John's Founder Resigning as CEO

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JB Lacroix / Contributor/ Getty Images

The founder of Papa John's pizza already had a reputation for being controversial, and in 2018, it cost him his company. Schnatter made comments in 2017, saying that the NFL had not done enough to stop players from kneeling in protest during the national anthem. He was forced out as CEO in January of 2018, but was still chairman of the board of directors, until it came out that he'd used the "n" word during a conference call in May 2018. He was booted from the company and his image was removed from all marketing materials. 

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Jared From Subway's Shocking Arrest

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For 15 years, Jared Fogle was Subway's inspiring and popular spokesperson, sharing his before and after photos and telling the world he'd lost over 200 pounds just by eating the chain's sandwiches. However, Fogle used his fame and non-profit The Jared Foundation, for which he visited schools to talk about obesity, for truly dark and disturbing purposes. In 2015, he was found guilty of child pornography and paying for sex with minors. Subway immediately dropped Fogle when the charges came out, and Fogle will be in prison until 2029.

Denny's Charged with Racism Against Secret Service


Diner chain Denny's came under major fire in 1993 when six Black Secret Service officers allegedly were not served breakfast at the restaurant, while their white colleagues received their meals promptly. The agents were providing security for President Clinton to the Naval Academy in Annapolis. The chain eventually settled a class-action suit in which they were accused of failing to serve Black customers or forcing them to pay in advance.

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Chipotle Norovirus Scandal


In the 2000s, the burrito chain had a whole slew of food safety issues, but the one that really scared diners was the 2015 norovirus outbreak in Boston that sickened 141 people. At the time, prosecutors said the outbreak was probably the result of a sick staffer "who was ordered to continue working in violation of company policy after vomiting in the restaurant." Gross. The chain ended up paying out $25 million for that and other food safety violations.

Tanya Edwards
Tanya Edwards is a seasoned food and health journalist, who has held roles at Yahoo Health as Managing Editor and at Food Network as Programming Director. Read more about Tanya