Certainly everyone in the restaurant business is talking about swine flu. But is anyone doing something about it?
The situation in Mexico City would suggest that health experts view restaurants as a critical control point in the outbreak, to use the HACCP term. Eateries there at Ground Zero have been ordered to stop serving dine-in patrons, though takeout is still permitted.
Yet, amid the 24/7 gush of swine-flu coverage, there’s been astoundingly little reporting on what U.S. restaurants are doing to cope. Here are some of the few examples I’ve been able to find:
Robbie Singh of Nashville was visiting his fiancé in Morelia, outside of Mexico City, marveling at the number of mask-clad locals he encountered. Tennessean.com picks it up from there:
At the time, he was unaware that the swine flu had started to spread quickly until [he started] receiving text messages from his boss — Michael King, owner of Monell's family-style restaurant."I was worried on several levels," King said. "I wanted him to be OK and didn't want him to bring it back either. Not in a restaurant. I told him to get checked the minute he got back. Then I was alarmed when the cases hit in New York. I had a customer eating with a facemask on, putting it down to put food in his mouth."
Singh reported to the local U.S. embassy in Morelia in case of quarantine and the shutting down of airports. He purchased masks and hand sanitizers. He was checked for the virus and cleared at a Nashville clinic Tuesday.
A unit of the Mellow Mushroom pizza chain in the Fort Worth area of Texas provided a preview of the nuts-and-bolts work that many restaurants in the U.S. might soon be undertaking. From the local paper, the Star-Telegram:
Less than a mile from McLean Middle School, where a student was diagnosed with swine flu, Mellow Mushroom was taking no chances. "We bleached down every surface people could touch — tabletops, chairs, booths and the handrails outside," said Mike Guinn, manager of the pizzeria on Bluebonnet Circle in southwest Fort Worth. "Then we went to Albertson’s and picked up about 10 hand sanitizer pump jars and put them on all the counters," he said. "Any one of those [McLean] kids or their parents could have been here."
The manager said precautions include periodic Lysol spraying of the touch-screen cash registers.Disposable flu masks?"I hope not," he said.
Having a name like Smithfield’s in the Carolinas might not be the ideal when many consumers are still mistakenly assuming that porl might be a source of the swine flu contamination. Unconfirmed speculation says the outbreak of Mexico may be linked to a hog farm that supplies Smithfield's, the giant U.S. meat processor.
The 45-year-old Smithfield’s Chicken chain, a Carolinas favorite, decided to deal with the the outbreak head-on. From QSR magazine:
"I didn't really want to put a sign on the window because that would give people the wrong idea," says Richard Averitte, marketing director for Smithfield's Chicken 'N Bar-B-Q, explaining his strategy for notify consumers about the outbreak.The company is taking a proactive approach, having already posted to its Web site, Facebook account, and Twitter feed to reassure consumers the Smithfield menu is safe. Averitte has also conducted several local interviews with radio and television outlets."We just want to keep our customers informed," Averitte says. "I wanted to nip it in the bud right now. I wanted to make it crystal clear, get out all the confusion and questions, and state the facts."
Crisis-management experts may not cite the public respone of the Taco Shop in Palm Desert, Calif., as the consummate example of what do to in a media storm. But at least the manager indicated on the record that the joint is mindful of the situation and is taking action to protect patrons. Less-than-forceful reassurance strikes me as preferable than no reassurance at all—if not the shrug that most places seem to be giving the situation. Here’s the news report from the website of a local news station:
Restaurants across the Coachella Valley are taking some steps to keep their clients and employees safe.David Jimenez manages the Taco Shop in Palm Desert, and, with the recent flu alert around the world, he's on alert."We got to follow the Health Department rules. The owner said to contact him if we feel sick, so he can take action."
Finally, kudos to the National Restaurant Association for setting up a website as a resource for restaurateurs who are wondering what to do about the situation.
More important, the association hasn't responded to the opportunists who are using the crisis to push for paid sick leave, a mandate the industry steadfastly opposes. Pushing back would be as unsavory as the lobbying itself.