Response to a Restaurant Business Crisis

crisisStories of adversity and how people and businesses overcome them are always intriguing to us. Recently, a Xoikos team-member read an article titled “After the Crisis, Firefly Aloft” in Seven magazine. It was about a popular tapas restaurant business in Las Vegas that had a food-poisoning incident that could have destroyed their restaurants. Health inspectors closed the restaurant after a salmonella outbreak had sickened scores of diners at their original location. Between April 21 and 26 there were 73 confirmed cases and 212 probable cases. Where word-of-mouth is everything, this could have completely destroyed a young couple’s dream.

John Simmons, owner of Firefly, started the restaurant and multiplied them throughout the city in efforts to help his dad. His dad drove a school bus, beat cancer twice and all John wanted to do was make his dad’s life easier. Then the unthinkable happened only a few months before the restaurant’s 10-year anniversary. After years of A-grade health reports, John and Tabitha Simmons were left scratching their heads, wondering how this could have happened. They knew they had to figure out the situation and be sensitive to the people that got hurt by their restaurant. They had to address very important questions if they wanted to successfully reopen: How do they rebuild the trust their patrons bestowed on them? How do they help their employees that depend on their restaurant to feed their children and put clothes on their back?

First, they adopted a transparent, non-nonsense strategy to address the problems. They gathered all the managers and key employees to discuss the situation. They kept tabs on the health department’s investigation, hired a food-safety expert to retrain the staff and all managers were required to pass the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe certification program. Employees who were not getting with the new program found themselves out of a job.

At no time did the Simmons make fake or insincere apologies. At no time did they try to pass off the blame to their vendors or the health department. They owned it. They were transparent with all the investigating organizations and the public.

Second, they hired a PR agency to help them through this traumatic time.

Firefly was not big enough to have a PR department in-house nor had ever a need to put a PR firm on retainer. Even though they were doing everything right internally to address the root of the problem, they knew the biggest and hardest pressure was going to come from the public. Angry people were posting on Twitter and the company’s Facebook page. TV cameras were always swirling around. Bloggers and social media were abuzz with the news of what happened. The PR agency was a must if they wanted any chance of reopening with success.

Firefly reopened at the end of May 2013 after several weeks of hard work. They have strong reviews on social sites like UrbanSpoon, OpenTable, and Google Plus. Here are some key points to take from their experience and apply should your business encounter a similar scale of crisis.

  1. While you may not have the funds to hire a PR agency there is a lot you can do to help yourself. Like the Simmons, use social media to build trust. There are going to be mean-spirited and misinformed people that post attacks on you. You cannot take it personally. Don’t delete posts unless they are vulgar. Deleting posts can cause more damage than repair. Instead, face the posts head on and be civil.
  2. Be transparent. The Simmons kept the public informed on everything that was happening as it happened. This included inspections, food safety classes, the new food safety program, etc. They showed they were addressing the problem and taking it seriously.
  3. Be understanding about how your customers feel and try to help them get past the past. Show them how much better you have become and how you addressed and continue to address the situation. Make them feel at ease and comfortable about returning to your business.
  4. Finally, work with the media that broke the story and/or did the most damage. Bring them along for the ride. Give them exclusive behind the scenes access to the training and opening night. Use them to rebuild the relationship that they helped destroy. Getting them on your side will prove to be a very powerful ally in your recovery.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid not having a single crisis in the life of our businesses. How you deal with them when they arise is critical to keeping the doors open or closing them on your dream forever. If the Simmons had not been open and honest with to people internally and externally, there is no doubt they would not have the restaurant business they have today. Being transparent, empathetic, and addressing the situation with grace and understanding in social media helped them rebuild the trust they lost and thrive again. This is a good formula to follow and can help you through a crisis

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