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Can Kansas City's Hereford House restaurants survive a food contamination scandal?

Hereford House at Town Center Plaza in Leawood.
Hereford House
Hereford House at Town Center Plaza in Leawood.

At least eight lawsuits have been filed by customers after an employee at the Hereford House in Leawood was arrested and charged with 33 felonies. Jace Hanson allegedly contaminated food in the kitchen by urinating and rubbing his genitals on it, and then posted videos of himself doing so online.

A former employee’s alleged acts of intentional food contamination at the Leawood Hereford House have not only resulted in multiple lawsuits over the past month but also damaged the reputation of one of the Kansas City area’s most iconic restaurant brands.

In April, Jace Hanson was arrested and has since been charged with 33 felonies, including dozens of counts related to his alleged acts contaminating food in Hereford House’s kitchen to go with 10 other newer charges in connection to allegedly possessing child sexual abuse material.

Since Hanson’s arrest, at least eight civil lawsuits have been filed in Johnson County Court, by people who claim they got ill after eating at Hereford House during the roughly three-week timeframe when Hanson was employed there.

“This has been a difficult situation for our customers and all of us connected to the Hereford House Restaurant in Leawood,” Hereford House said in a statement emailed to the Post in May.

But the difficulties may not be over.

While local officials in Leawood are scrambling to help prop up the restaurant, which has been a prominent gathering place and civic institution in Johnson County for decades, at least one local food industry expert says Hereford House needs to do some serious rebranding in order to survive this episode and remain in customers’ good graces.

Here’s what we know:

The employee is charged with multiple felonies

Hanson was originally charged in April with one count of criminal threat in Johnson County District Court for the alleged intentional food contamination.

He has has since been charged with dozens more counts and now faces more than 30 felonies, including 10 charges of child exploitation for allegedly possessing child sexual abuse materials.

Hanson worked at the Leawood restaurant from April 6 to 23, according to the restaurant, and in that time, investigators say he intentionally contaminated food by urinating in food and rubbing his genitals on food being prepared in Hereford House’s kitchen. He then posted videos of himself doing so online.

According to a criminal affidavit filed in the case, Hanson admitted to the acts to investigators, saying he did so at the request of men he had met online through apps like Grindr and Sniffy’s who wanted him to make videos of himself contaminating food.

Following Hanson’s arrest, the restaurant said in a press release that its staff took immediate action and was cooperating with investigators.

“[Hereford House] immediately took all measures and steps to thoroughly clean and sanitize the kitchen in accordance with health department guidelines,” the statement said.

Leawood Police said test results showed Hanson had no infectious diseases that posed a risk to customers who may have consumed tainted food.

Inside the Hereford House restaurant in Leawood.
Hereford House
Inside the Hereford House restaurant in Leawood.

Requests for comment from Hereford House’s marketing team and legal representation for this story were not returned.

Since putting out a request for responsesfrom customers who ate at the restaurant during the dates Hanson worked, Leawood Police say that hundreds of people have reached out to them.

The restaurant now faces at least eight lawsuits

The restaurant faces at least eight lawsuits in Johnson County District Court, including suits filed by a Jackson County couple and aClay County man.

The lawsuits accuse Hereford House of causing the plaintiffs pain and distress when they became sick after eating at the Leawood location.

Representing five out of the eight plaintiffs, attorney Bradley Honnold said while his clients are claiming negligence by Hereford House, the main focus is on the restaurant selling tainted food to its customers.

“This is a products liability case about the condition of the food,” Honnold told the Post. “It was tainted, contaminated food that was sold and it’s illegal to sell tainted contaminated food in Kansas, both in terms of the warranty that goes along with any food products that any innocent consumer buys, as well as products liability law that says if someone sells a defective product, then they are liable and responsible for damages of harm if harm is suffered by the purchaser of the product.”

The incident has gained the attention of other local law firms. In a Facebook post in late May, Kansas City-based injury law firm Shamberg, Johnson & Bergman urged Hereford House customers who experienced illness after eating there to contact the firm.

“Our team is investigating food contamination reports at Hereford House’s Leawood location,” the post read. “Your safety is our top priority, and we’re committed to seeking justice for those affected.”

The restaurant is a staple in the Kansas City area

Originally opened in Kansas City in 1957, Hereford House currently has four locations in the Kansas City area, including in Leawood and Shawnee.

The original location in downtown Kansas City burned down in 2008.

The restaurant’s former owner Rodney J. Anderson and two co-workers, Vincent Pisciotta and Mark Sorrentino, were later sentenced to federal prison after they were convicted of intentionally setting fire to the landmark building in order to collect insurance money.

Hereford House is now owned by Mary Holland, a member of the Leawood Chamber of Commerce, who acquired the restaurants in 2012 with her business partner Camellia Hill.

Hereford House is a member of Kansas City Originals Restaurants, a nonprofit independent restaurant association dedicated to sustaining the independent Kansas City restaurant scene, as well as the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association, which represents and offers training, including food safety education classes, to local restaurants.

Ever since it opened in the late 1990s, the Leawood location has been a local gathering place, known for hosting graduation parties, wedding receptions and civic events like regular meetings of the Leawood Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club.

“It’s always been a top-rated, very well-respected restaurant group … and has a great history throughout the city,” Leawood City Councilmember Lisa Harrison said.

Local officials are defending Hereford House’s reputation

Having family in the food industry, as well as being a former food service worker herself, Harrison empathizes with the restaurant and what it’s going through.

“I know that, unfortunately, bad things can happen in any kitchen. And that’s just a fact,” she said. “If people don’t know that, then they’ve got tunnel vision.”

Since the news broke about the alleged contamination at Hereford House, Harrison said that she, along with other Leawood city councilmembers, have made it a point to support the restaurant as much as they can.

“I think it’s a real shame that the nefarious acts of one person can have the potential to put 50 or 100 people out of work if a restaurant group closes because of the acts of one person who is no longer obviously there,” she said. “We can’t let one person’s bad acts tarnish the reputation of such a great restaurant.”

Stephanie Meyer, president of the Leawood Chamber of Commerce, echoed that sentiment.

“We’ve had a lot of folks reaching out and asking how they can help and what I’ve been saying is ‘Go eat at the restaurant,'” she said. “People are interested in helping and supporting and giving back to a restaurant and ownership who’ve given a lot to our community.”

Is a rebrand needed?

Still, the incident and the continuing legal fallout have been blows to Hereford House’s reputation.

Some longtime customers who say they fell ill after eating at Hereford House told the Kansas City Star they would never return to the iconic steakhouse.

In order for the restaurant to survive, it will have to make clear that this incident was uncommon, Trey Meyers, director of communications for the Missouri Restaurant Association, said.

“This was definitely one of those isolated incident cases of an individual person of interest that had no history, no priors, of an incident like this happening before,” he said. “And he kind of just did these heinous acts just out of pure enjoyment, from what it seems from all the reports and documents that we read about the situation.”

While Meyers praised the restaurant for cooperating with authorities and initiating immediate deep-cleaning protocols, he said they will have to undergo a rebranding where they emphasize their safety and cleanliness in order to make sure customers know something like this won’t happen again.

“It’s one of those deals of an organization entity just has to go through a rebrand phase,” he said. “It’s one of those situations where they coordinate with certain enforcement entities that they need to to make sure their situation gets resolved and everybody’s safe and everything’s up to code. But it’s just one of those deals of we’re waiting for time to pass and see how it all plays out.”

What’s next

Leawood investigators are continuing to ask anyone who ate at the restaurant between March 26 to April 23 and later became ill to contact the Leawood Police Department by e-mail at tips@leawood.org or by calling 913-266-0696.

Hanson remains in custody at the Johnson County Adult Detention Center in New Century on $500,000 bond.

His next court date is scheduled for July 10.

This story was originally published by the Johnson County Post.

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