Listeria outbreak puts Big Olaf in limbo, but Siesta shop regroups
By John Morton
From business as usual to business without a name.
That describes the five-day whirlwind that transformed the ice cream parlor on Ocean Boulevard that was previously known as Big Olaf Creamery. Whether the immensely popular longtime Village mainstay, which has operated there for 40 years, ever bears that name again is undetermined. For now, it is selling Yoder’s Southern Creamery ice cream and all signage and references to Big Olaf have been removed.
The drastic and frantic changes come in the wake of a public warning issued July 2 by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention that linked, at least in part, Sarasota-based Big Olaf Creamery to an outbreak of listeria that has caused one death and 22 hospitalizations in 10 states.
The CDC recommended that any Big Olaf ice cream be thrown out and that consumers should clean any areas, containers, and serving utensils that may have touched Big Olaf ice cream products. The agency also said that Big Olaf’s headquarters in Sarasota’s Pinecraft neighborhood was voluntarily contacting retail locations to recommend against selling its ice cream products until further notice.
Eventually, on July 13 the state’s health department shut down Big Olaf’s production facility when traces of listeria were discovered on the premises. Big Olaf has recalled its products.
Big Olaf’s Siesta Key location at 5208 Ocean Blvd. closed its doors Sunday, July 3 — two days after Big Olaf’s corporate office learned of the CDC investigation.
Johnny Seitz, and annual visitor from Tampa to partake in the Key’s Fourth of July activities, was one of many people who consumed Big Olaf ice cream as late as 10 p.m. Saturday, July 2.
“The company should have closed, just as a precaution,” said Seitz when learning of the July 1 warning. He was among those who had one of the final servings of Big Olaf ice cream at the Siesta location. on the heels of the company learning of the warning.
“If they knew Friday, they risked spreading listeria to everyone else from Friday and Saturday,” he added. “And the place was busy like always when I was there. Sort of crazy that they weren’t forced to close, since the CDC said it came from big Olaf. Doesn’t even make sense.”
Meanwhile, the Siesta Key business subsequently underwent a “thorough cleaning,” manager Caitlin Bray reported, including the scrubbing of all surfaces and containers. Also, the commercial cleaning company JAN-PRO provided disinfectant services, Bray said, during the break in business.
Big Olaf branding was eliminated during that time period, leaving behind a naked storefront.
The business reopened Friday, July 8, serving the Yoder’s product.
“If we aren’t serving Big Olaf, we’re not allowed to use any of the branding,” Bray said. “So right now, we don’t have a name.”
Indeed, employees are currently answering the phone with a generic “hello” greeting.
Christian Ziegler, whose District 2 seat on the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners represents Siesta Key’s northern half, backed the warning on July 3 after consulting with the county’s health department.
“Big Olaf is great, but take a break,” he said. “They are pulling their product as well. Throw away any product you have at home.”
Ziegler said flu-like symptoms such as fever and diarrhea usually appear within days and go away, “but can get more serious is you aren’t treated for listeria.
“Symptoms can start two to three weeks after consuming the product. So, if you have eaten at Big Olaf within the last three weeks and get fever-like symptoms, go get tested ASAP. They can treat this – it only becomes an issue if you don’t get diagnosed. The elderly and pregnant women are most at risk.
Among the hospitalizations is one that involved a fetal death.
According to the CDC, listeria can cause severe illness (known as invasive listeriosis) when the bacteria spread beyond the gut to other parts of the body.
Ziegler shared this July 2 comment from a Big Olaf spokesperson, whose tone was that of some skepticism:
“For now it is only speculation as it is an ongoing investigation. Our brand has not been confirmed to be linked to these cases. I am not sure why only Big Olaf is being mentioned and targeted.
“The original report we got from the Florida Department of Health on July 1 was that there are 23 cases reported. The first one reported was January 2022. Six out of the 23 patients mentioned having consumed Big Olaf ice cream, but nothing has been proven. We have been cooperating with the Florida Department of Health, FDACS and the FDA as soon as we were informed about the situation. We have been transparent and have answered all their questions and provided them with all the information requested from us, as the health and well-being of the public is our first priority.”
Added Ziegler, who noted that his family regularly eats at Siesta Key’s Big Olaf shop, “Big Olaf is a great business, so once they are in the clear let’s all rally together to support them.”
Said Bray on Monday, July 10 of the reaction she’s getting from customers, “It’s been positive. It seems like most people are rooting for us.”
The closing fueled Siesta-themed social media platforms with hundreds of comments from those with concerns about having eaten at the Village’s Big Olaf.
Julie Fausey of Minster, Ohio reported that several members of her family ate there and that most felt ill in a variety of ways, including her pregnant daughter who consumed ice cream three times in one week.
Linda Eberhardinger of York, Pennsylvania also expressed fear after returning from a visit that included eating at Big Olaf.
“I was very worried and scared at first, but the fear is easing up because it’s been a couple of weeks and I haven’t had any symptoms,” she said.
Would she return to the shop on future visits?
“I probably would go back, unless they have another outbreak between now and when I return,” Eberhardinger said.
Big Olaf’s many franchisees handled the situation in different ways. The other location closest to Siesta Key, located at 4862 S. Tamiami Trail in The Landings, remained open for more than a week after the warnings. It then closed temporarily, reopening July 16 serving Sarasota-made McClain’s ice cream instead of Big Olaf. It too removed all Big Olaf branding.
Two lawsuits against Big Olaf have been filed in the aftermath of the outbreak. One involves the estate of 79-year-old Mary Billman, a former Sarasota resident living in Illinois, who died Jan. 29 in a Florida hospital. The other involves a Massachusetts woman who lost her pregnancy. Both were linked to the consumption of Big Olaf ice cream, the lawsuits say.