Feb 01, 2011 -Katie Morell
As anyone who has worked in a restaurant can tell you, there is no such thing as a dull day. In any given moment, things can go wrong. I caught up with three restaurant experts to find out what owners can do to survive a crisis.
Back in the late 90s, Skip King found himself in the middle of a nightmare. His employer, a major ski resort, was under investigation for E. coli poisoning and he was the chief communications officer.
“We were notified that six people had gone to the doctor and been diagnosed with E. coli poisoning,” says King, now president of Reputation Strategies, a public relations consultancy in Yarmouth, Maine. “Thankfully, we had about a two- week window from our initial notification by the health department to when the story broke in the media.”
In that time, King and his team worked closely with the health department and epidemiologists to understand the situation and were ready when reporters started asking questions.
Here’s what he learned from the situation:
Make sure to cooperate
“If something like a food poisoning outbreak happens in your restaurant, make sure to cooperate with the health department and give them everything they need,” he recommends. “Take advantage of their expertise and make sure to ask them questions.”
Stick to what you know
“Don’t allow yourself to get caught answering speculative questions by the media and don’t allow reporters to lead you,” King says. “Express concern for anyone who was sick, but unless it is proven that your eatery was linked to the illness outbreak, allow yourself some wriggle room.”
“If people think you are hiding something, they are going to leave with a negative impression of you,” he says. “Candor is really important. Be open and straightforward. Don’t lie.”
Tom Kelley is managing partner of Concept Branding Group, a branding, operations, and marketing consultancy in San Diego, California, and often consults with restaurants in crisis.
Here are his tips for navigating through a sticky situation:
“It is vitally important to have a plan of action should something happen,” Kelley says. “Schedule drills with your employees -- should the health department stop by, should there be a natural disaster, etc.
“Sometimes this means bringing in someone from your state restaurant association or an expert in the field to do training with your employees once or twice a year.”
“The first step is to find out exactly what happened,” Kelley says. “Once your investigation is complete, release that information to the public to show that you aren’t hiding anything.”
“Make sure to write everything down,” he says. “Be empathetic, but at the same time, don’t accept liability for something that isn’t your fault. For example, if someone tells you they got sick at your restaurant, make sure to check what they ate with your sales records.”
Communicate after the fact
“After everything is said and done, keep in touch with the media, especially the reporters who were interested in your story,” Kelley advises. “Tell those writers about all of the great things you are doing at your establishment.
“You could even write letters to the editor about the importance of keeping operations well-suited for a crisis. This will show the community that you are on top of your game.”
Amy Foxwell has years of restaurant experience. After marrying a chef, she helped him open a restaurant and within a few months was faced with an uncomfortable situation.
“One day, my husband was cooking and he dropped a glass,” she says. “He and a waitress were looking for the glass and thought they’d found it all, but when a customer found a shard in their food, the waitress reacted by saying, ‘Oh yes, we were looking for that,’ and walked away.
“Needless to say, the customer was not happy.”
Foxwell and her husband mended the situation by profusely apologizing, paying for the customer’s meal, and inviting the customer for an after-dinner drink.
“It all worked out in the end,” said Foxwell, now founder of Win Win Restaurant Marketing in Aix-en-Provence, France. “I always tell my clients that each complaint is a gift. If you turn people around, they will most likely be more loyal than your every day customers.”
Foxwell and her husband didn’t fire the waitress from the glass incident. “It wasn’t her fault, it was ours,” she says. “We hadn’t trained her. After that, we immediately put processes in place regarding what to do in the event of a crisis.”
Here are a few of Foxwell’s top tips for restaurant owners:
“Acknowledge the customer’s feelings and fess up to your mistake,” she suggests. “Most customers know that you are human and if you deal with the problem well, they will accept it and forgive you.”
Collect opinions and keep in touch
“Capture people’s opinions of your restaurant with a survey,” Foxwell says. “If you capture people’s details, such as their name, phone number, and e-mail addresses, you can communicate with them after the fact.
“If someone had a bad experience at your restaurant, give them a call or write them a hand-written letter. People like personal attention. Life is so big and fast and impersonal these days. If the owner of the restaurant takes the time to call their customer and apologize, the customer will feel special and most likely come back.”