No restaurant or food business would comfortably stomach having made someone sick; their purpose, after all, is to nourish and provide a terrific time. And so the question is, what can food establishments do to handle both the distressed customer and decayed reputation after incidents of food poisoning? 

Show empathy

At the Venn diagram of responses offered by experts, not saying sorry (at least not immediately) is at the center of the most logical solutions. “Avoid saying ‘I’m sorry’ because if the patron files a lawsuit, that apology could be construed as an admission of guilt,” writes Chron writer Sampson Quain. He offers the following responses instead to show empathy without incriminating the business: “I hear your complaint” or “I understand that you are upset about what’s happened” to still demonstrate urgency.

“As soon as we receive the complaint, we acknowledge receiving it and obtain all the details immediately: the name of the guest, where they were seated, when and what time they ate, what they ate, symptoms of the food poisoning and when they occurred, and lastly, where and what the guest ate before dining at the restaurant,” echoes Eya Shrimski, part-proprietor of Circa 1900 in Cebu City, which handles around 5,500 guests a month. 

Investigate what went wrong

Having handed over cash for a meal, a customer invests a degree of trust in a restaurant: that they will commensurately give them a wholesome meal and a good time. Bearing this trust in mind, it is the duty of the proprietor to investigate what went wrong when this pact of sorts is breached. 

In another article where chefs Rolando and Jac Laudico were interviewed regarding a similar topic, they detail the rationale behind their initial silence following an encounter with an alleged food poisoning victim.

“The reason why we kept quiet is that we were waiting for the findings of the Department of Health,” says Rolando. Before throwing information and the quick apologies onto the internet for people to like and comment on, the Laudicos wanted to make sure the facts were straight—testing their water supply, reviewing their suppliers, and passing San Juan Health Department sanitary inspections—so they could clearly, factually, and properly communicate with the affected customer. 

Be transparent about what you find

With the knowledge of the investigation process laid out for consumers, Steve Shrimski, the chef and other half of Circa 1900, details his procedure for addressing complaints and to underscore the accountability of the restaurant.

“A small portion of every dish is packed separate, labeled, dated, and frozen so the function can be specifically identified. This could be frozen for one to two weeks. If there is a problem, the samples kept can be tested at a lab to identify whether there was a problem with the food or not.”

This road of adherence to accountability however forks in two: One might conclusively find that the restaurant was at fault, but one may also find that another culprit bears the burden. Nevertheless, the duty of the establishment is to keep customers happy and improve quality; rather than searching for forgiveness, the social media-aware establishment should seek to inform the concerned public of the steps it is taking to resolve the problem in service of better standards—those in-house, among its suppliers, and across the industry. 

“Food poisoning in food establishments cannot be totally avoided but consequences can be minimized by up to 70 percent based on international statistics if you have a good food safety management system,” says Glenn dela Cruz, “However, it’s still better to be proactive by implementing good hygiene and food safety practices in restaurant kitchens and dining areas.”

Following an E.coli outbreak in Chipotle stores across the United States, one disgruntled contributor voiced his take on the lack of transparency on the part of the Mexican-inspired, fast casual restaurant: “They have a whole section of their website devoted to ‘responsibly raising the bar,’ and yet there is nothing about this latest food safety snafu posted anywhere on their website or social media channels.”

Be upfront and honest. Don’t skip details. The duty of restaurants facing the jury of the internet and affected customers is to explain what’s going on honestly, asserting that the situation is just as urgent to them, that the well-being of its customers is focal.

Consult the right people and communicate

What any concerned restaurant owner should also do is consult the right team of professionals. Glenn Hyde dela Cruz, FSCO, vice president of training and program development at the Food Safety and Hygiene Academy of the Philippines says, “The restaurant owner should know the contact details of the city health office where their restaurant is located.”

This is important as any food poisoning events should be reported to the authorities for proper epidemiological investigations. For such concerns, it is important to know the “designated food safety compliance officer (FSCO) who has passed a prescribed training course for FSCO recognized by the Department of Agriculture and/or the Department of Health based on the IRR of the Food Safety Act,” he says.

The inarguable key person with whom to keep contact however is the affected consumer. “Customers will appreciate the extra steps taken to listen to their issue and help them,” according to writer Dennis Keith in his article “How to Handle Foodborne Illness Complaints.” They would be even more glad to know the steps you’ve taken to address their concern. Process improvements, changed suppliers, new machinery—these are the types of reinventions that reassure customers of both your care and concern for improvement.

“It is important to offer to cover expenses if the guest needs medical attention. [We make] sure we email or call after a few days to check if they are better, then, once again, after a month invite them over for dinner to update them of the effects and improvements of the new procedures implemented as a result,” says Eya.  

Avoid if possible and know your history

No restaurant or food business would stomach having made someone sick; their purpose, after all, is to nourish and not provide food poisoning
No restaurant or food business would stomach having made someone sick; their purpose, after all, is to nourish and not provide food poisoning

Cleanliness in the kitchen, clean hands, and strong supplier relations all bode well for keeping sickness out of an establishment’s vocabulary. “Prevention is better than cure,” says dela Cruz.

But it is important to have a plan ready and a crisis bible, then help the staff avoid taking blame with such immediacy. These response plans will find palpable benefit by reviewing the recent history of food contamination and its handling. 

Singapore brand Irvins Salted Egg recently faced the wrath of the internet following the finding of a well-seasoned, deep-fried lizard (a salmonella risk) among the crisps of salmon skin in one of its products. Of course unable to point fingers at anyone but himself, company founder Irvin Gunawan contacted the Bangkok-based complainant directly, offering to pay any medical bills and issued the statement: “We really want to sincerely apologize to the customer and everyone who is affected by this incident directly or indirectly. We take full responsibility for the goods that we sell and everything in it.”

Honesty, genuine concern, and a willingness to change are difficult to fault.

More than projecting empathy, the company affirmed that it will investigate the matter, fully cooperating with the investigations of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore. Of course, the company took jabs enough to crush its crisps, but one can hardly fault the willingness to address the customer and anyone else concerned by the contamination.

Says one Facebook user: “Rather than avoiding this issue or trying to cover up any matters relating to this unfortunate incident, Irvins chose to face it, learn from it, and move on to provide a better experience to all their customers. Kudos to them for being honest and genuine in business.”

A similar incident also occurred closer to home with milk tea beverage company Gong Cha Philippines suffering a firestorm after a photo of one of its beverages containing three small cockroaches circulated online. Responding immediately and being transparent about the investigation it was conducting, the company stated that “news has reached us about a post circulating in social media regarding the quality of an item served to one of our customers. Let it be known that we are investigating this matter thoroughly and shall take appropriate action.” Gong Cha took responsibility for the health and safety of its customer and affirmed its commitment to provide better quality beverages.  

From recent history, entrepreneurs can learn that a business may respond in ways that enhance their brand’s reception. So long as urgency and concern are underscored, an investigation is conducted with the correct authorities, and transparent reporting and a willingness to improve is displayed, companies stand to best address both the individuals concerned as well as the legion of finger-clickers and likers populating social media.

Honesty, genuine concern, and a willingness to change are difficult to fault.

Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 16 No. 1