Crisis Management for Today’s Restaurants

Crisis Management for Today's Restaurants

By Linda Duke, CEO, Duke Marketing

Restaurateurs need to know how to manage and deal with a crisis. Irresponsible or irrational actions pertaining to a crisis can be damaging to a long withstanding reputation. Restaurateurs can learn from other’s stories and take necessary steps to handle their crisis in a positive manner. Once restaurateurs learn to deal with a crisis at hand, they can work to rebuild trust in their communities and return to satisfying their customers with great food.

Food Borne Illnesses

Every year, the effects of food borne illnesses sicken nearly 76 million Americans. Getting people sick is the last memory that restaurateurs want to leave in the minds of their customers. So what can restaurants do when trouble strikes? Well, most importantly restaurants need to take control of the situation, deal with the problem at hand so no one else gets sick and then work to return trust to their communities.

When a small restaurant chain experienced an E. coli break out in their restaurants they took action immediately. They contacted all general managers and ordered them to discard all produce and any other suspicious food that could have been contaminated. Further, they found a new lettuce supplier to take the place of the supplier that delivered the contaminated lettuce. Next, they coordinated their own private investigation with state and county health officials to pinpoint the source of the outbreak. Within a matter of days they publicly apologized to their communities in which the restaurants are located.

The restaurant chain invited the media to the restaurant to film their new lettuce washing procedures. They sent food to news crews and published a full-page ad in the local newspaper offering three days of free food at their locations. This act brought in nearly 50,000 customers throughout the three-day period, many of who said they would return and pay their moneys worth next time. Finally, the chain also created a 1-800 number giving customers the opportunity to call in with their medical claims, which they paid in full.

Restaurateurs can use valuable educational measure to control preventable food borne illnesses in the kitchen. Educating employees about hand washing, sanitizing, keeping foods at their proper temperatures or heating foods to their proper temperatures are all preventative measures. Food safety programs like the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe® work with restaurants to educate others about proper food handling.


While no restaurant enjoys a crisis, the result doesn’t have to be entirely negative, even if the restaurant is at fault. Generally, the public is forgiving of honest mistakes. When restaurants admit the error and make amends with the community, they may have a chance to enhance their reputation. Here are some tactics to reinvigorate consumer trust:

Give food away. This is a great way to increase traffic, keep the restaurant full and change customer perceptions that have been damaged by a crisis.

Involve the media. The media can help restaurants improve their image. Restaurants can invite the media to film about improved food safety initiatives, help with finding criminals or spreading the word about how a restaurant has turned a negative situation into positive situation.

Keep customers informed. The worst possible thing your restaurant can do during a crisis is to keep customers in the dark. Customers want to know what is going on at your restaurant and it is your responsibility to keep them informed. Restaurants can and should use social media, media outlets and in store POP to keep customers in the know about action steps the restaurants have taken since the crisis.

Instill Trust. As leaders in their communities, it is imperative that restaurateurs take the necessary steps to reinvigorate confidence in the public about their brand. Restaurants need to share information with the public and keep communication lines open—especially if people are in danger. Restaurants must remember that building trust again takes time. If restaurateurs are taking positive steps in the right direction and staying true to their communities, trust will follow.

Don’t give into panic. Yes, it is important that restaurants act quickly, but it is also important that they do not make anxious or rash decisions. The first signs of a crisis are tense moments, but take a few moments, collect your thoughts and start thinking rationally about the situation.

Take care of regular business. Do not get so highly wrapped up in the problem at hand so that you neglect your daily business responsibilities and most importantly loyal customers.

Similarly, when fixing a problem the focus should be on taking care of what needs to be dealt with immediately. Communication following a crisis will flow more smoothly once the problem has been handled.

Bring in a professional. Handling media calls, getting business back on track and taking care of regular customers may be too much to take on, especially if you’re facing your first crisis. A crisis management team knows how to handle the situation at hand, and most likely has in the past handled one similar to the one that you are facing. Most importantly, a trained crisis management firm allows you to get back to work and takes some of the stress off of yourself and other workers.

Celebrating 25 Years in the Restaurant Industry, Duke Marketing has handled numerous crisis scenarios for restaurant chains and Linda Duke, CEO is an expert witness, crisis communicator and emergency legal liason.

Contact:  Duke Marketing at 415-492-4534 or email