Over the last 30 years I have spoken to dozens of restaurants and restaurant associations about “why it is a bad idea to poison your customers.” Some still do not heed my advice. So, how should a restaurant respond to a food poisoning claim by one or many of its customers?
First, a restaurant should treat all customers with respect, whether the restaurant believes the claim to be legitimate or not. “I am sorry that you are ill, please tell me more about what happened,” is the best way to start a conversation with an ill customer. Recognizing that someone is sick is not admitting fault, it is only recognizing that you have sympathy for their illness. Finding out what the customer believes happened will give you clues as to legitimacy of the claim. This customer either did not get sick at your establishment or might well be the first. Knowing this could well help you stop one illness blooming into something overwhelming. Depending on the severity of the illness or the anger of the customer, this might be a good time to consider paying the medical bills and/or offering to comp the meal.
Second, see if any of your employees are out sick – they clearly should not be working if they are. Also, check for any unusual occurrences in the restaurant (power outages, water supply issues, recalls of ingredients).
Third, find out of the customer complaining sought medical treatment, and if so, were they diagnosed with a bacterial or viral condition – those conditions may be reportable to the local health authorities and may give you a clue as to the cause of the customer’s illness. Ask the patron when they ate at the restaurant and when they first became ill. Knowing the bacteria or virus and the incubation period also gives you strong clues as to the possible cause of the customer’s illness.
Fourth, if you feel that you are not the source of the customer’s illness then say so, but make that decision based on science, not on emotions.
Finally, if in fact you, or a public health entity determines that your restaurant is the cause of the customer’s or customers’ illness, then admit your sorry, offer to pay medical expenses and wage loss and be transparent what you believe the cause of the outbreak is and what you plan to do to make sure it never happens again.
You can protect your brand by using compassion and common sense.