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Restaurant Food Crisis – How one business tackled it

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Restaurant Food Crisis – How one business tackled itCrisis Response from the archives

“The barbecue at the Barbecue Center in Lexington (NC) is now safe” the Davidson County Health Department said in late August.  Let me add, “The Barbecue Center is an example of how to handle an outbreak of customer sickness.”  While this may not be a corporate giant fending off national trouble, any crisis hurts if it’s yours, and the response principles tend to be the same.

In this case there was a consistent effort by the restaurant owner to communicate concern, investigate the cause, fix the problem and reassure customers and the public.

Beginning about August 15th more than 30 people reported stomach ailments after eating at the restaurant.  As the pattern revealed itself, the health department announced it was working with the restaurant to learn the cause: the standard approach.  What is not routine is that owner Cecil Conrad repeatedly stepped forward to add information, convey actions taken, and provide reassuring words.  He told reporters, “We want to get to the bottom of this and we’ve taken steps to double-check our procedures and reviewed our hand-washing with employees.  Just the basics to prevent this from happening again.” He highlighted his restaurant’s record of high sanitation grades for years and his intent to maintain those standards.  Not relying only on past performance he said he would remind employees not to come to work if they are sick or if someone in the household is sick.

You didn’t have to take Conrad’s word for it. A health official provided third party corroboration when he said, “The Barbecue Center’s high sanitation record indicates the restaurant has consistently practiced good handling techniques and procedures.”  The official then told potential victims what to do to protect their health.

Eventually investigators tracked the illness to a symptom-free employee who had been treating a sick family member. The culprit was norovirus, a leading cause of food-borne illness that spreads through food, personal contact and touching contaminated surfaces.  Symptoms usually last one or two days.   Even before the virus was pinpointed, the health department and Conrad announced that employees disinfected the restaurant with bleach and water once the problem surfaced.

Again, owner Conrad reassured customers.  He explained that without employee symptoms there was little that his restaurant could have done to prevent the outbreak.  It could have happened anywhere: a department store, a library, a workplace.  Then came the personal touch: “We’re not happy our people got sick.”  He admitted a fall-off in business but said he intended to work hard to bring back his customers. “We’ve got to get people in here and let them know we’re the same business that’s been here for 50 years,” he told the Winston-Salem Journal.

I asked Cecil Conrad how he knew to be so pro-active and communicative.  He said he learned a lot having worked in the athletic departments of Wake Forest University and UNCG and gave a lot of credit to Davidson County Health Director Layton Long who advised him to get ahead of the story and avoid the “no comment” approach.  He also said, “I was confident from the beginning that we did nothing wrong and I had nothing to hide.

In early September he said business is still not back to normal.  But if he runs his business like he tackles challenges the customers should return in time.  I know you join me in wishing Barbecue Center the best.



Richard D. Amme

Crisis & Media Management

Amme & Associates, Inc.


336-631-1856 fax

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