“Just calling to say your restaurant made me sick. What are you going to do about it?”
Without an outbreak of foodborne illness cases, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint a single instance to one meal in a particular restaurant. The symptoms of foodborne illness, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, cramps and headache are much like those of 24-hour stomach flu. Too much to drink and/or eat, especially overeating rich foods when not one’s usual diet, can wreak havoc on the digestive system.
The onset of food poisoning symptoms, depending on the pathogen, generally requires an incubation period of several hours to several days. Still, diners stricken with intestinal distress, whether attributable to foodborne illness or not, soon after eating out are apt to assign blame on the food they ate at the last restaurant they visited. When they do, a call or email to the restaurant often follows.
When you, the restaurant manager or owner gets that “I got sick from eating oysters, organic chicken, whatever at your restaurant” call, how you respond is crucial. The caller deserves your concern and respect. Sure, some scammer may have never set foot in your restaurant and is looking for something for free. They could have eaten something nasty out of their home fridge. They might have picked up a pathogen on public transportation. Regardless, it’s not the time to judge or speculate. Showing compassion without assuming the blame, gathering information, and assuring the patron that the restaurant will review its sanitation and food handling procedures is your objective.
You are in a bit of a bind. You want to be compassionate, and you need the caller’s cooperation to do your diligence, but if the case has merit, what you say could backfire. Avoid an automatic apology: “I’m so sorry you’re sick” can be perceived as an admission of fault and used against you in a lawsuit.
A restaurateur we interviewed shared her procedure for responsibly handling allegations of food poisoning.
I: Managing the Call
Keep calm, don’t get defensive.
Do not admit to any wrongdoing. Replace “I’m sorry,” with “I can hear you are upset.” Demonstrate empathy without taking on blame. “We’re going to get to the bottom of this.”
Resist the urge to react to the complainant even if they make statements or demands that are irrational or unreasonable. No snarky attitude or accusatory tone of voice. Your task is to gather information and to reassure the patron that you are taking them seriously. “Please, if we could take a few minutes to narrow it down, I would really appreciate your help. Thank you.”
You need to get the facts so you can determine what happened. You need enough information to locate and eliminate the cause of the problem if the restaurant is at fault. The call could be the first of several.
Write it down
Use the Foodborne Illness Complaint Report form for gathering facts. Keep them in an accessible place. Don’t keep an upset caller on hold while you search for a form.
Data you’ll be collecting includes:
- Customer name and contact information
- Date they dined
- What he/she ate
- What others at the table ate
- Symptoms – Let them tell you. You write it down. Don’t make suggestions or put words in their mouth.
- Treatment – Did they see a doctor or go to the hospital?
- Did they take home leftovers?
- Other food or beverages consumed before or after the suspect meal
- Your assessment of the callers’ attitude
- Action taken by the caller
- You are not a doctor.
Do not offer medical advice. Do not offer to pay for medical treatment. It is appropriate to ask if they have seen a doctor or gone to the hospital. If they have, request a copy of the report.
- What is the caller going to do about it? (Are they going to tattle on us?)
Record any actions they made or say they will make. Don’t be upset if they tell you that they are going to call the Health Department. In cases of potential foodborne illness, the Public Health authorities can be your best ally.
If they have threatened to post negatively about the restaurant on social media, no need to rebut, but for the record, note it on the report. Likewise, if they say they are going to call an attorney, note the comment but do not react.
End the call/ Schedule a call-back
Inform the complainant that you will meet with the chef and be back in touch.
Be sure to follow up and call when you said you would, even if you have nothing new to report. Your actions speak louder than words. You want the guest to know that you are not taking their problem lightly.
If the case turns out to be of merit and the illness is a result of food or beverage consumed at your establishment, your contact with the caller will end here and the attorneys will take over. Further contact by the restaurant can be construed at witness tampering.
Start a file / Gather information
- Make a copy of the guest check so that there’s a record of what items were consumed (in addition to what the caller reports).
- Run a copy of the Item Sales Report from the Point-of-Sale for the meal period in question. Highlight the items consumed by the guest and note quantities sold of each item.
- Keep these documents, and the initial Report completed when contacted by the guest, as well as a log of all follow-up calls and communications concerning this matter in this folder.
Inform the kitchen
- Ask the Chef to check all the ingredients used in the preparation of all of the items consumed by that guest.
- Store samples in a safe, secure location (labeled and frozen) for later examination if necessary.
- After freezing samples, discard any remaining questionable ingredients.
- Alter procedures if necessary to prevent using tainted product or causing contamination.
- Review food handling, sanitation and hand washing procedures with food handlers. Remind staff that they are not to work when sick.
Notify the authorities
- Inform owners and others on the management team of the incident.
- Notify the Health Department that there has been an allegation of foodborne illness and let them know what you have done. Fax/email them a report if they request it. (More about this in a bit.)
- The Director of Operations (or whoever the top management person is who handles this) may elect to notify the restaurant’s Insurance Company and Attorney asking for advice and to keep them informed. The intention is to be proactive rather than reactive.
What about the Press or Social Media?
In the event that a major crisis (real or hype) direct all agents from the press to the Owner, Director of Operations, General Manager or other predetermined crisis management point person. Every restaurant should have a designated person, and an alternate, who handles sensitive issues.
III: Follow Up with the Caller
After your in-house investigation, follow up as promised with the complainant. Be matter of fact and respectful. Inform him/her of the steps taken. “We ran a report of what and how much of each item was ordered. We have not had any other reports of illness (Presumably you have not.). The chef pulled ingredients and froze samples. Public Health Authorities have been alerted. The chef reviewed food safety handling procedures with his team.”
A gift certificate to return to the restaurant may or may not be in order. That’s your call.
IV: Proactive Policy
Why call the Public Health Department?
“Hello, this is so-and-so from such-and-such a restaurant. I’m calling to let you know what we got a call from a customer who dined here yesterday and says they are sick. They ate XYZ. We served X # of portions of those items. There have not been any other reports of illness. The chef has frozen samples of all the ingredients…”
Sure, your call to them is probably going to prompt a visit, but it won’t be unexpected, so you can be ready to be seen at your tip-top best shape. Better the authorities hear about an incident from you than from a guest. They will arrive as your ally rather than as your adversary. If there is a problem that originated in your establishment the health department epidemiology department can get a head start on testing frozen samples. Your cooperation will pay off from a public relations as well as a public health perspective.
V: What if the Restaurant is to Blame?
Your investigation may indicate that the problem originated in your kitchen. The caller might indeed have a laboratory identified foodborne pathogen. That could trigger an outside investigation of your product and food handling practices. You will need to get your Attorney involved.
Food poisoning lawsuits usually fall under the category of personal injury or to a lesser extent, product liability or gross negligence claims. The customer was sold a tainted/defective product (food or beverage), that injured him or her (made them sick). They engage a firm that specializes in Personal Injury claims. The restaurant will need an attorney with similar expertise. If your attorney does not handle such issues, he or she should be able to recommend one who does. If not, your state Professional Restaurant Association can refer you to one.
We’ve all heard of the 2015 food safety incidents involving Chipotle restaurants in fourteen different states. Two cases of Norovirus traced to employees who worked while sick. Contaminated tomatoes caused 64 reported cases of Salmonella. 60 incidents of E.coli, the source never confirmed as the incubation period of 10 days is too long, were attributed to food consumed at Chipotle restaurants.
The company worked closely with government agencies. They assumed responsibility. They have revamped food safety procedures. Time will tell whether or not their brand is damaged beyond redemption.
Restaurants are not in the business of making people sick. While the majority of foodborne illness accusations are never linked to a restaurant, some are. Food safety is a paramount concern. It’s the responsibility of every restaurant owner, manager, and chef to prevent food poisoning. Proper food handling procedures, hand washing and sanitation practices, carefully vetted vendors, and food safety training for employees is essential. Managing allegations of food poisoning professionally and having a procedure for investigating possible incidents of foodborne illness is a responsibility of management. Treating those who believe they have consumed tainted produce in your restaurant with respect is simply part of offering excellent hospitality. Whether the complaint leads to a lawsuit or just a form in a file, dealing with it will be a team effort. Be prepared.