Damage control

July 17, 2006

Most restaurant operators are well acquainted with foodservice safety standards. They know how foodborne illness begins and how it's spread.

But few know what to do should a serious outbreak occur at their restaurant. What would they say to customers claiming to be sickened by their food. One might be easy to handle quietly, but what if many are affected?

Who would they call for advice on how to fix the problem?

And if a major outbreak occurs, how would they handle media calls?

Jeff Caponigro

What's Important

Key to a restaurant's survival of a foodborne illness outbreak is knowing what to do if it happens.

Focus on customer concerns sincerely and promise to respond to the problem. But don't admit liability until it's proven.

Be proactive in dealing with the media. Take control of the story by telling yours before they tell their version. Be factual and honest at all times.

said restaurateurs usually want to do what's best for their customers when that happens, but believes few know what to do next — and when a problem arises, there's a lot to do.

"Obviously, the safety and comfort of customers is the most important thing, even if that means they have to close down while place gets cleaned or while an investigation occurs," said Caponigro, president of Caponigro Public Relations Inc. in Southfield, Mich.
But even a forthright gesture like closing a restaurant can backfire if customers or the media don't know what's going on behind those closed doors. Instead of telling the story clearly and factually, the silence leads people to make their own assessments, he said. "It's so important to know what you're going to do. It lets people know you're doing what you can to fix the situation."

LeAnn Chuboff, director of science and regulatory relations for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), said when a crisis management plan is in place, even companies that face foodborne illness disasters can handle the crush of concerns in an orderly fashion. When a single Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurante faced a foodborne illness outbreak that sickened 660 people in late 2003, Chuboff said the company was well prepared and handled the backlash admirably.

"They worked so well with their community when that happened," Chuboff said. "And because of what they did with the community before and after the outbreak, the day they reopened, there was a line of people out the door waiting to eat there."

A necessary plan of action

As part of its ServeSafe course, NRAEF recommends operators formulate a plan of action before a foodborne illness occurs. Following is a condensed version of NRAEF's recommended steps blended with comments from Caponigro and Chuboff. (These steps are published in entirety in the ServeSafe Course Book, Fourth Edition)

1. Develop a crisis management team

For a large multiunit company, the team may include the entire executive team, as well as people overseeing operations, risk management, marketing, human resources and public relations.

For an independent operation, the team might include the owner, a general manager and the head chef.

2. Identify potential crises

Foodborne illness may be the biggest threat, but your crisis management plan also can cover others such as robberies, severe weather, power outages, fire, water interruption or others that could affect both staff and customers.

Since recovering from a crisis requires the help of outsiders, Chuboff said sowing goodwill into the community is a smart way to gain the community's support. "It's the right thing to do and it establishes trust in the community," she said. "You also should establish a relationship with the regulatory body you'd need to call if this happens." Knowing the people to talk to personally will work to smooth the process of restoration.

3. Assemble a crisis kit containing a list of contact names and numbers

The list should include all crisis-management team members on staff and outside sources such as fire, police, health departments, testing labs and key management and headquarters personnel. The kit can be a three-ring binder enclosing the plan's materials. Keep it in an easy-to-locate place such as the manager's or the chef's office.

4. Test your plan by simulating a crisis.
This will give you an idea of whether your plan works as

Foodborne illness refresher

Salmonella comes from raw meats, poultry, unpasteurized milk and dairy products, seafoods, fresh produce including sprouts and foods handled by infected food handlers.

Hepatitis A comes from shellfish, salads, cold meats, sandwiches, fruits, vegetables, fruit juices, milk, milk products and infected food handlers.

E. coli comes from undercooked minced meat, unpasteurized milk, poorly washed vegetables contaminated with feces and unpasteurized fruit juices.

Listeria comes from improperly refrigerated long shelf-life products. Products include deli meat and poultry, smoked sea foods, cheeses and pre-cooked sausage products.

intended, it will train key personnel to act quickly should something happen.

5. When customers call ...

Take all complaints seriously. Express concern and be sincere, but do not admit responsibility or accept liability. Listen carefully and promise to investigate their concerns and respond quickly.

Caponigro said whoever takes the sick customer's call should avoid being judgmental.

"They shouldn't try to convince the person that could not have occurred at that restaurant," he said. "Instead, they should get the facts."

Ask when they last ate there, what they ate or drank and why they think the illness was caused by your food. Get the person's name and phone number. Find out when the person became ill, what his symptoms were and whether he ate elsewhere after dining at your place. Also ask if he sought medical attention for his symptoms.

Sincerity is crucial, Caponigro added, and the point person should express concern for the customer's discomfort. However, he stressed the contact not admit fault until all the facts are in. Hear him out and let him know somebody will get back to him with answers in a timely manner.

6. Media management

A good crisis communication plan will include media sources, as well as basic responses to common questions. Consider developing sample press releases that can be tailored quickly to each incident.

Have a list of "dos" and "don'ts" for dealing with the media. A few include:

If the problem is deemed an outbreak by local health officials, contact the media before they contact you. Tell your story first rather than have the media create its own version.

Stick to those facts you know and work to find answers to questions you can't answer. Don't be evasive or give false information. That can magnify or prolong the crisis.

No matter how tough the questioning, don't get defensive. Stay on message and answer calmly.

Insist employees defer all media questions to the approved spokesperson.

As the problem is being fixed, communicate that progress to the media by holding news briefings. Come to all briefings with a prepared agenda. Don't merely respond to questions, take control. Caponigro suggested any media briefing be held in a room in the restaurant that's free of the restaurant's branding, such as a sign or logo.

7. Inside communication during the crisis

Chuboff and Caponigro said crisis management training of employees begins with constant reinforcement of food safety standards. But should the worst happen, keeping them in the loop is crucial.

Not only do they need to know the seriousness of the problem, they need to see honesty at the top and a sincere commitment to doing what's best for the customers, the business and them. Reminding them their economic well-being is directly tied to the restaurant's well-being will reinforce the message that "we're in this together."

Make sure all employees know who the designated spokesperson is and how to contact him or her. Instruct them to direct all questions, both inside the restaurant and outside, to that person. That keeps the message the same at every level.

Topics: Operations Management

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