F&B

Resilience should be a defining element of restaurants

In the wake of their buffet restaurant Guevarra’s alleged “food safety” crisis, chefs Rolando and Jac Laudico’s unorthodox response deserves closer attention

The title says it all. It can’t be stressed enough. In fact, next to food and service, resilience should be the best selling point of any establishment. And when a restaurant has mastered combining all three factors, at its most potent, the result is an affirmation of the kind of business restaurateurs set themselves out to do. It’s something that both Rolando and Jac Laudico, two of the most successful and recognizable chefs in the industry, have only found out recently.

The path to reaching their full potential was, and still is, rocky. Or even extreme to some extent. When a social media post accusing their buffet restaurant Guevarra’s went viral on Aug. 30, it rendered their reputation and credibility on the ropes. That once word reached the local San Juan City government, a shutdown was immediately ordered. It was a trial by fire that dragged on for months—not just between the Laudicos and the complainants but also with the general public. It was also a situation that became a battle for survival.

BE TRANSPARENT AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE

“Our primary concern is for our staff not to lose motivation and trust,” says Jac. “That was my number one concern [when all of this happened]. It was the 65 employees [and the families who depend on them] who might lose their job if we can’t set this right.”

And while the first few weeks of the ordeal was surprising in its intensity, the couple’s collaborative effort, admittedly not perfect owing to their ill-advised silence in the beginning, is, on closer inspection, a case study in how to turn the tables on an unexpected crisis.

“Our primary concern is for our staff not to lose motivation and trust,” says Jac. “That was my number one concern [when all of this happened]. It was the 65 employees [and the families who depend on them] who might lose their job if we can’t set this right.”

Self-doubt can be a good tool because it forces you to carefully analyze the situation before making any rash decisions. However, too much self-doubt can also be crippling. It’s a hard lesson to determine where and what the equilibrium is. And while the Laudicos realized that silence wasn’t the best way to assert their right to a fair inquiry, it all adds up to a thoughtfully gripping climax.

“The reason why we kept quiet is that we were waiting for the findings of the Department of Health [which came out in November]” says Rolando, clarifying that they also had been communicating with the complainants since the issue first broke out. “Normally we would say, ‘This is impossible,’ [but] before this incident happened, we make our own checks [on our food safety standards] so what we did even before the local health department came to us, was get the services of three private agencies (Qualibet, BGR Hydrolab Testing Center, and SGS).” After a series of tests, no cholera bacteria (Vibrio cholerae) and other pathogens like amoeba and E. coli were found.

“There are only two ways that cholera can be present,” according to Rolando. “One is through the water supply and the other is from uncooked seafood that came from a contaminated water supply.” Given that over 700 people dined in the restaurant that day with no reports of other customers contracting cholera and that raw seafood isn’t on the menu, the Laudicos could have been facing a social media crisis built on virality—think more coffee shop racism and less cheeky crisis control.

“Our suppliers were also investigated as we submitted a list. The suppliers of Guevarra’s are the same as the suppliers of other buffet chains. If this was a supplier issue, then the impact would have been much bigger,” says Jac.

In addition to the independent examinations, Guevarra’s also passed the two sanitary inspections conducted by the San Juan Health Department as well as the water supply and personnel investigation of the Department of Health Epidemiology Bureau through the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine.

Chefs Jac and Rolando Laudico

While these have officially cleared Guevarra’s and allowed the restaurant to resume operations after closing for more than the required number of days, the damage done to their reputation and the emotional toll it took on their business, their staff, and their personal lives is a problem that they are still trying to valiantly solve.

“We already have the tests and documents on our side,” says Jac. “It’s an uphill battle for us because it was something that was blown out of proportion. A lot of people took it as a fact. It really hurt us a lot. And I realized that it’s not easy. It will be a long process to fully recover. It’s back to business [since Sept. 17] but the volume isn’t back yet.”

TAKE ACTIONABLE STEPS

Much of the circus surrounding the food poisoning allegations are forays into territories that any restaurateur can encounter at some point in their business cycle—may it be a foodborne illness or contamination, a natural disaster, an ingredient shortage, an accident, a supply chain error, and even criminal acts like extortion, theft, fraud, and robbery. In essence, it isn’t a question of “if” it will happen but “when.” In the Laudicos’ case, who have been in the food industry since the late ‘90s, while it is clear that they “are not in the business of giving cholera to people” according to Rolando, expecting the unexpected sets the standard higher for restaurateurs.

This isn’t the first time they’ve encountered problems, though. Naturally, given Filipinos’ penchant for getting their money’s worth at buffets, unfortunate mishaps like stomach aches do occur every now and then but, as Jac says, as long as proper policies, crisis strategies, and insurance programs are synchronized with transparency and cooperation from both parties, it’s an issue that can easily be dealt with to reduce the negative impact on both parties.

Much of the circus surrounding the food poisoning allegations are forays into territories that any restaurateur can encounter at some point in their business cycle—may it be a foodborne illness or contamination, a natural disaster, an ingredient shortage, an accident, a supply chain error, and even criminal acts like extortion, theft, fraud, and robbery. In essence, it isn’t a question of “if” it will happen but “when.”

Nevertheless, the Laudicos share that the takeaways were aplenty. On the basis of the investigations alone during their voluntary closure, which eventually earned them an excellent rating comparable to that of a huge bakeshop chain’s commissary, the Laudicos crafted a new set of measures that will allow them to retain and exceed the rating they received.

“The local government already cleared us to operate [after five days] but we took that time to further improve our systems and do some much needed renovations,” says Jac. “Instead of taking this negatively, we took it positively,” adds Rolando.

During their voluntary closure, the couple beefed up their infrastructure with additional security, surveillance cameras, and sneeze guards; empowered their staff with more trainings on quality assurance and customer service; increased their quarterly tests to monthly checks; and even required key personnel to obtain food safety certifications.

REBUILD THE BRAND

The silver lining of this whole experience to any restaurateur familiar with the incident is that it really strikes upon the necessity of businesses to secure and implement a crisis management plan to minimize damage and rebuild the brand from whatever effects a worst-case scenario can bring before it even occurs. Easily executable protocols on even minor incidents like an allergic reaction, an injury in restaurant premises, or a bad review posted online could go a long way in inspiring more solutions to protect both the restaurant and the consumer. In doing so, restaurateurs empower their staff to solve problems even before escalating to management.

Easily executable protocols on even minor incidents like an allergic reaction, an injury in restaurant premises, or a bad review posted online could go a long way in inspiring more solutions to protect both the restaurant and the consumer. In doing so, restaurateurs empower their staff to solve problems even before escalating to management.

“Have a crisis bible,” stresses Jac on what she would advice other business owners. “Always train your people and be ready to put that [plan] into action right away. And be more open because you’re not in the business of killing people. That’s what Anthony Bourdain once said when asked about the safety of eating street food.”

“Anything can happen in a restaurant or a kitchen regardless if you have the cleanest restaurant. Things may go wrong but if they do go wrong, don’t give up or be discouraged. You have to check yourself first, to verify if you are really at fault,” adds Rolando. 

Taking this approach not only moves the foodservice industry forward into a level where company profits and customer satisfaction sit side by side but also instills into the dining public that the systems in place are there to understand the issues at hand and achieve an appropriate measure of fairness to settle any unforeseen situation.

Sure, the Laudicos may have winced away from the negative attention at first (and arguably taken a hit for the industry), but they have since earned a level of critical credibility with the way they have shifted gears to tackle a monstrous problem in the right place at the right time.

“At the end of the day, if we can keep improving ourselves, we can give better service to our guests,” says Rolando.

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