What to do if your restaurant fails a health inspection

Too Long; Didn't Read (TL;DR) Summary:

  • Crisis Management: Form a crisis team, assess the situation quickly, and take immediate corrective actions. Ensure clear internal communication and legal consultation.
  • Media Handling: Be transparent, prepare statements, provide media training to your spokesperson, and proactively manage media relations. Use social media effectively and maintain a positive focus.
  • Long-Term Strategies: Continue public communication post-crisis, engage in regular staff training, and actively work on rebuilding your restaurant's reputation through community and customer engagement.

It happens every day, even to the best and most diligent restaurant staff and operations teams. It’s the lunch rush at your restaurant, and everyone is working as quickly as they can to get orders in and out to customers. Everything changes from one second to the next: your most hardworking server burns his hand in the kitchen and has to leave for medical care. One of the cooks is grilling non-stop, and the fridge door is constantly being opened as the staff continually reach in to grab ingredients. At the same time, one of the sinks beaks, spilling water all over the kitchen floor.

This chaos would not be complete without a surprise inspection by the state health inspector. If things don’t go well, the health inspector finds some serious violations and promptly shuts you down, advising you not to serve patrons any longer, and hangs a notice on the window until the next reinspection.

The New Reality of Restaurant Crises

There was a time when this situation, as bad as it is, was easily manageable. Your exposure did not extend beyond lost sales for the day and loss of reputation for any customers who happened to discover the situation. Unfortunately, those days are long gone.

It may only be several hours until the failed report is published on a government website. In seconds it can be distributed by websites and blogs that automatically collect information about restaurant closings. To make matters worse, local media often produce segments aimed at sharing these stories, using the most dramatic tactics when doing so.

Media may publicly or secretly film your location. They may interview your customers, filming their reaction to the inspection report. They may confront you or your staff attempting to provoke an angry response. Remember that broken sink? It’s now “sewage found near a food prep area.” That refrigerator that was constantly being opened? It’s now “products stored at dangerous temperatures.”

So, what is the best recourse to avoid tarnishing your restaurant’s name forever by a failed inspection report? How long until the news stations come out to sensationalize your story?

Your Response Strategy: Crisis Management and Media Handling

Whether or not you’ve been unlucky enough to be featured on a series such as Dirty Dining, there are steps you can take to mitigate the damage of a failed health inspection. You may have time to get ahead of the story and put other safeguards in place to protect your brand’s reputation.

Crisis Management Plan: Your First Line of Defense

  1. Immediate Response Team: Form a crisis management team including key staff members who are trained to handle emergencies. This team should be responsible for all critical decisions and actions during the crisis.
  2. Communication Protocol: Establish clear lines of communication within your team. Decide who will be the spokesperson to the media and customers. Consistent and unified messaging is crucial.
  3. Assessment and Action: Quickly assess the situation to understand its severity. Implement immediate corrective actions to address any health and safety concerns.
  4. Legal Consultation: Consult with legal experts to understand the implications of the crisis and to prepare for potential legal outcomes.
  5. Employee Support and Training: Ensure that all employees are aware of the crisis and understand their roles. Provide additional training if necessary to handle the situation effectively.

Handling the Media: Navigating Public Perception

  1. Transparent Communication: Be honest and transparent in your communications. Admitting a mistake and showing steps taken to rectify it can build trust.
  2. Prepared Statements: Develop prepared statements that address the situation without speculation or unnecessary details. Focus on what is being done to resolve the issue.
  3. Media Training: Train your spokesperson on how to interact with the media. They should be calm, clear, and consistent in their messaging.
  4. Proactive Outreach: Don’t wait for the media to come to you. Proactively reach out with your statement and updates on how the situation is being managed.
  5. Monitor Media Coverage: Keep an eye on how the media is reporting your story. Be ready to correct any inaccuracies or provide additional information as needed.
  6. Utilize Social Media: Use your own social media channels to communicate directly with your customers. This allows you to control the narrative and provide updates in real-time.
  7. Focus on the Positive: Highlight any positive aspects, such as your restaurant's history of compliance, dedication to customer safety, or any charitable activities. This can help balance the narrative.

Long-Term Strategies

  1. Follow-Up: After the immediate crisis has been managed, continue to communicate with the public about the steps taken to prevent future incidents.
  2. Ongoing Training: Regularly train your staff on health and safety standards to ensure compliance and readiness for any future inspections.
  3. Reputation Management: Work on rebuilding your restaurant’s reputation through community engagement, customer-focused events, and positive media relations.

Remember, even if you have a crisis at hand, you have a chance to recover. What you say and do following a PR crisis such as this can ruin your reputation, or redeem it. For example, Jack in the Box, a fast-food franchise that carries the title of one of history’s worst cases of widespread foodborne illness, has since become a leader in fast food sanitation, procedures, and safety training. It spent billions on restructuring the way its business was run, to become known for their community leadership and corporate responsibility.

Partnering with an agency that can help you create and execute a crisis management plan can be an essential tool to get out of turmoil. At Absolute Marketing Solutions, we have helped handle clients resume business and rebuild their reputation after being featured on segments such as Dirty Dining, and other news reports about failed health inspections.

How can I fix my restaurant’s reputation?

Eric Seidel is a Tampa consumer lawyer and formerly worked as a journalist on Fox 13 covering consumer affairs, targeting scams, frauds, and consumer rip-offs.

Both as a former member of the media, and an attorney concerned with protecting the rights of consumers and business owners, Eric understands both sides of the media storm that may arise from a failed health inspection at a popular food establishment. Here are some insights from him.

Reputation Management for Restaurants: Failed Health Inspections from Absolute Marketing Solutions on Vimeo.

If you’re in a situation where you have failed a health inspection, and your restaurant is going to be on the news, contact the team at Absolute Marketing Solutions today to get started on your crisis management strategy. We work with our clients to rebuild their brand and alleviate damage in the midst of a PR crisis.

About Alfred Goldberg

Co-founder and President of American Operations at Absolute Marketing Solutions. Alfred Goldberg has over 15 years of experience as a small business owner and is one of two individuals in Florida to hold the distinction of being a Mobile Marketing Association Certified Mobile Marketer.