Whoever said there is no such thing as bad publicity hasn’t read the headlines about Chipotle Mexican Grill lately. As the restaurant chain has learned, an unfortunate event – whether it’s a multi-state E. Coli outbreak or something more minor – can attract attention for all the wrong reasons. But in managing a crisis well, a business can earn back the trust of existing customers and even win new ones. If you find yourself in the midst of a public relations crisis, here are five actions to keep in mind:
Think of victims before profits: Don’t create more victims by delaying action that could prevent potential harm. Close restaurants as needed. Remove suspected items from shelves. Proactively help victims by providing information and financial support as needed.
Talk to your team: Before the bad news is public – or if you have no warning, as soon as possible afterwards – make sure you inform your employees and give them language to use when responding to customers. Stress the importance of customer service and provide clear guidelines for handling customer complaints sensitively.
Communicate regularly to control the message: Assess what groups of people should be notified or updated and provide information regularly via a phone hotline, web updates or other avenues.
Show your decency: A sincere public apology can go farther than a detailed explanation of why something went wrong. Be constructive instead of critical.
Create good press: If you have instituted new policies to prevent a problem from happening again, publicize them. Promote community or charity work you do that underscores your values.
Cyberthreats: Are you prepared?
Cybersecurity was a prominent topic at the National Restaurant Association’s recent Restaurant Innovation Summit, and for good reason: The food industry is an appealing target for hackers and terrorists, and it has much work to do to keep pace with technological advances that can protect it. Many businesses address cybersecurity threats with one-off fixes that ignore other potential problems. In a Food Quality & Safety report, ANX Corp. mentioned eight security gaps that affect food and beverage companies: outdated firewalls, insecure remote access, weak security configurations, operating system problems, lack of staff training, flawed security policies, negligence, and poor change control procedures. Conducting a comprehensive risk assessment of your operations can help you identify which gaps exist in your facilities. Then you can put the necessary technical horsepower in place to ensure you’re prepared across the board.
Big sugar vs. big corn
Sugar or high-fructose corn syrup? It’s become a polarizing question for food manufacturers trying to accommodate the ever-changing preferences of consumers. Last week, this debate landed in court. Corn refiners had tried to recast high-fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar” in an effort to distance itself from reports linking it to diabetes and obesity – and perhaps to win back large food companies that had eliminated the ingredient in favor of cane sugar. Western Sugar Cooperative and others in the industry sued corn refiners for false advertising and made claims about the addictive nature of corn syrup. Corn refiners and other agriculture businesses then countersued. You get the idea. The eventual winner of this contest may not be either sugar or corn but the company that can find a way to sidestep both substances and still satisfy consumers’ taste buds.
Toxin off west coast takes shellfish off the menu
Just as commercial and recreational crab fishing season was set to begin in California, it was canceled. The state’s health department reported that a toxin had infected Dungeness crabs living off the coast. The shellfish contain demoic acid, a natural toxin produced by an algae bloom that has spread through the marine ecosystem, killing sea mammals and tainting various species of shellfish between southern California and Oregon, according to the New York Times. When the toxin is consumed by humans, coma, seizures or even death can result. Growth of the Pseudo-nitzschia algae, which produces the acid, has skyrocketed recently due to record-high ocean temperatures.
Restaurants adding to positive U.S. jobs numbers
Last month, the U.S. beat expectations by adding 271,000 jobs, nearly 100,000 more than expected. The restaurant industry – and franchises in particular – were responsible for a good portion of that growth. The ADP National Franchise Report said restaurant franchises added 52,500 jobs in October. According to Nation’s Restaurant News, that’s the most jobs added during a single month since ADP and Moody’s Analytics started producing the report.
A turning point for grocery stores
Food industry insiders now refer to the center aisles of the nation’s grocery stores as “the morgue.” That’s according to a New York Times article this week about consumers’ shift away from the packaged foods and artificial ingredients that are staples of the center aisles and toward fresh whole foods with less sugar. The country’s largest brands, from General Mills to Kraft, are dropping artificial ingredients and acquiring smaller organic brands. The article referenced a recent report called Food Shopping Decisions that said 42% of the age 20-to-37 demographic don’t trust large food companies – compared with 18% of people outside that age range. To thrive, large brands across the food industry will have to be nimble and willing to reinvent themselves.
Universal school meal programs jump up by double digits
This year, there are 20% more schools across the country offering free breakfast and lunch to students through the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision, according to Food Management. The provision is currently in its second year. The USDA announced the news last week and added that 97% of the schools participating in federal school meal programs have adopted the improved federal nutrition standards outlined in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. There are approximately 17,000 schools offering free meals to eight million students in high-poverty areas through the USDA’s program.
Chefs take aim at food preferences masquerading as allergies
Remember when offering gluten-free menu options made a restaurant stand out? Nowadays, it’s expected for a food service business to accommodate customers who can’t tolerate gluten, dairy and a range of other allergens. That’s been a boon to people with severe food allergies. But according to a Boston Globe article, a growing number of people who claim to be allergic (but actually aren’t) are putting chefs in a difficult spot. Some chefs interviewed claim that up to 60% of patrons on a given night report being allergic to a certain food. Because the word “allergy” calls for specific food preparation protocols, making food for an allergy sufferer can be a time-consuming prospect that adds to kitchen chaos at peak times. The problem occurs when patrons make chefs go through the process of preparing food safe for an allergy sufferer when they could have simply noted their preference – and saved the chef precious minutes in the kitchen. Chefs are now starting to push back by denying detailed food requests at peak times. The true allergy sufferers may have to pay the price.
McDonald’s tests a fancier burger
McDonald’s is nothing if not innovative these days. In addition to debuting a number of healthier items and ingredients on its menu in recent months, it is now giving a beefed-up burger a test run in the U.K. market to compete with the likes of Shake Shack and Five Guys. The Guardian reported that McDonald’s partnered with chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants to create the upscale burger, which comes in three varieties dubbed the “Signature Collection.” It will sell for the equivalent of $7.20, which gets customers a brioche bun and the thickest patty ever sold at McDonald’s. If the burger sells well in the U.K., McDonald’s may introduce the menu item in other locations around the world.
Food with Integrity?
It’s a worst-case scenario for any food service business. For the third time in three months, Chipotle Mexican Grill was linked to cases of E. Coli that have infected more than three dozen people in Oregon and Washington. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control released a well-timed report that recommends actions food businesses should take to prevent such outbreaks and protect the public’s health. Here’s the lowdown: Keep thorough records to facilitate the tracing of foods from their source to destination, use loyalty cards to help identify foods that make people sick, move swiftly to recall products connected to an outbreak and to alert customers, select suppliers who follow best practices for safety, share proven food safety solutions with others in the industry, make food safety a key part of your company culture, and meet or exceed new food safety laws and regulations.
At Restaurant Innovation Summit, the future has arrived
Robot chefs might sound like something out of The Jetsons. But they’re just one futuristic trend the National Restaurant Association showcased at its Restaurant Innovation Summit late last month. IBM’s Chef Watson made an appearance and demonstrated how robots can help chefs refine recipes and reduce waste. Keynote speaker Amy Webb of the digital strategy consulting firm Webbmedia Group highlighted other innovations on the horizon, such as how restaurants will use technology not just to manage workflow but to entertain patrons. Computers, she said, are also helping to customize the dining experience by collecting personality insights about people and offering dining advice tailored to their tastes. Restaurateurs will be able to mine those insights as well. One program in the works can study the language and tone of an email from an unhappy customer and create a personality profile that tells the restaurant manager how to respond in a way that will make the person come back through the door.
Bug-fed livestock? Yes, it’s coming
This may be hard to swallow. PROteINSECT, a new project funded by the European Commission, is studying what might happen if farmers fed chickens and pigs on bugs as opposed to soy and corn. According to a FastCompany article about the effort, an outsize portion of the farmland on earth is used to grow food that is fed only to livestock. This is happening at a time when growing populations are expected to roughly double the consumption of meat by 2050. The insect feed could be produced locally and in much smaller spaces than corn or soy would demand, which would shrink meat’s large carbon footprint. Bugs would not be a logical food source for every animal but might be feasible for fish, poultry and pigs. Other startups like Enviroflight are proceeding with similar efforts in the U.S.
Beef selloff continues
Cattle placed in feedlots have dropped some 4.1% from a year ago, the USDA reports. While future prices remain above $140/cwt, it is down some $30 since last November. Real-time prices, meanwhile, have dropped to $120/cwt as of October 1. What is behind the drop? After years of high prices fueled by drought, high feed and fuel prices, and global demand, all have tapered off, which is reflected in the cattle drop off and price declines we see now, The Commodity Update reports.
Minimum wage votes hit a road bump
With the recent elections behind us, voters in three cities weighed in on minimum-wage increases, The Portland Press reports. In Portland, ME, and McCall, ID, voters thumbed down increases to $15 and $10.25 respectively. Tacoma, WA, voters approved a new $12/hr. minimum, but it will take two years before taking effect rather than an immediate increase to $15.
More local veggies, please
Chef José Andrés, who owns a number of highly successful restaurants across the U.S., is advocating that instead of subsidies for big agribusiness, those funds should fund more government-backed small farm loans. In addition, he notes that consumers need to look to local food sourcing for fresh produce rather than processed and frozen foods, Quartz reports. Among the areas Andrés is passionate about is using less pesticides and more brainpower to grow what we need. He also hopes to promote a simpler approach to food by using locally grown produce and meats to demonstrate that you do not need to search far and wide or spend a lot of money to eat well. “In this country, people have become selfish with the process for how we buy food,” he says. “We want simplicity.”
Food trends for 2016
The World Health Organization’s recent determination that eating processed meat could lead to cancer may fall on deaf ears, Beef Producer reports. According to research from NPD Group, there has been no discernable difference in eating trends since the American Cancer Society first issued a call to limit eating processed foods some 12 years ago. "What our analysis shows is that we humans are creatures of habit for the most part, and are slow to change but we do evolve," says Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst. "It's that slow evolution in both attitudes and behaviors to which producers, processors, food manufacturers, and retailers must pay attention."
Average weekly lunch budget more than you may think
Workers spend on average $53 a week on lunch, credit card giant Visa reports. That adds up to $2,746 per year on lunch! Equally surprising is the fact that residents in Southern states lead in both frequency and amount spent on lunches, topping the national average by nearly $200 a year. Northeasterners come in second, followed by Midwesterners and Westerners.
It’s about the numbers, stupid
Back in the 90’s, the Clinton campaign got a lot of mileage with the slogan, “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” In the business world, that same call to action can be used to put analytics to work for your business, Boston Retail Partners says. And companies are listening, with more than 60% planning to upgrade or replace what systems they currently have. What did the recent survey find?
- Out-of-date systems
- Advanced analytics are gaining in popularity
- Integrated merchandizing plans are not working because they need improvement
Future sales prospects deem
Brand is everything
Keeping customers happy is essential to building your brand. It is also vital to keep employee morale high and your restaurant in tip-top condition. That means no dirty floors, broken chairs, or wobbly tables. They all reflect your brand. Professionals call them “take cares.” And if you don’t, your brand will soon morph into something we will probably not recognize and certainly not like. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish, Smartbrief.com says. Your place of business reflects on you, professionally and personally.
Call in the drones
Hankering for gourmet meals flown to your door? That’s right, flown as in drone delivery, courtesy of Amazon and Google, TIME reports. Google in particular is already on the FAA’s doorstep asking for approval to launch its drone initiative by 2017. Also joining in the drone wars is Walmart. The feds have yet to issue a ruling, but the threat of buzzing delivery drones overhead at 500 feet or less is a scary Orwellian thought.
Local sourcing will grow
Of the 1,600 chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Association, recently, 44% said that local sourcing is one of the fastest growing trends over the past decade. Among the top 10 locally sourced items are:
• Locally grown produce (77%)
• Heirloom apples (65%)
• Organic produce (63%)
• Unusual/uncommon herbs (63%)
• Exotic fruits (59%)
• Hybrid fruits/vegetables (57%)
• Superfruit (55%)
• Dark greens (52%)
• Micro vegetables/micro greens (51%)
• Extra hot peppers (51%)
Panera Bread vows humane change
Joining a growing list of restaurants, Panera Bread says that it will switch to cage-free eggs, antibiotic-free chicken, free-range beef, and pork that is not raised in gestation cages. The changes will be phased in over the next five years.
Why restaurants don’t recycle more
Restaurants are the largest generator of food waste in the U.S., the Food Waste Reduction Alliance says. Of the food not used, only 1.4% is ever donated, and a little more than 14% ends up being recycled. Why? There are several reasons. “Most of the conventional restaurants and quick-stop eateries organization surveyed said transportation constraints, limits in storage capacity and insufficient on-site refrigeration were the greatest impediments to donating extra food to charities. Barriers to recycling/composting food waste included ‘insufficient recycling options,’ management or building limitations, and transportation challenges as major reasons why recyclable food usually ended up in the landfill,” TriplePundit.com reports.
Increasing gift card sales
Of the more than 3,700 restaurants recently surveyed, more than two thirds bought gift cards to sell to their patrons, Restaurant-Hospitality.com reports. Is your establishment among the latter? What follows are some tips on increasing card sales:
- With the holidays coming, you might want to focus on developing a holiday gift card campaign.
- Sell cards on line. According to Adobe, holiday shoppers will spend $83 billion between now and the end of the year. Advertising online will draw customers looking for convenient gift ideas who will buy for themselves as well as friends.
- Run cyber Monday sales.
- Make sure you display the cards prominently.
- Promote, promote, promote in print, in your restaurant, and on line.
- Host a card giveaway at the restaurant and with social media.
- Make cards reloadable.