After the Crisis, Firefly Aloft

A headline-grabbing food-poisoning debacle could have destroyed a popular tapas restaurant. Here’s how the owners responded to the challenge–and began rebuilding their reputation.


It’s early June, and John and Tabitha Simmons are sitting in a plush corner booth in Firefly‘s new location on Paradise Road. As the Gypsy Kings belt out “Bamboleo” overhead, John talks about the history of the restaurant. How, after years working his way up in the industry, he scraped together enough money in 2003 to open the original storefront a couple of doors away in The Park strip mall. How he opened additional Fireflies in Summerlin and Henderson, and another (since closed) at the Plaza Downtown. How the restaurant has employed so many family members over the years. How the tapas theme caught fire, lighting the path for the many small-plate restaurants now dotting the city.

And then his voice catches. “My dad drove a school bus. He beat cancer twice. It’s just that,” He taps the table, laughs a deprecating laugh to fend off the emotion and blows out a deep breath. “It’s just that I worked my butt off to get to this position. My dad could retire a little easier because of this place. The history…”

He stops and looks away. “I can see the story now: ‘John Cries.'”

Tabitha squeezes his arm and jumps in. “I don’t want us to sound like victims, because we’re not,” she says.

Just weeks earlier, as Firefly was making 10th anniversary plans for July, a salmonella outbreak had sickened scores of diners at Firefly?s original location. Health inspectors swooped in on April 26 to shut the restaurant down; the Southern Nevada Health District tallied 73 confirmed cases of food poisoning and 221 probable cases, all between April 21 and 26. The district later determined that the bacteria had been spread in Firefly?s chorizo, and that the contamination likely occurred at the restaurant. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been left with the decision of whether to investigate the supply chain.)

The Simmonses were stunned. Firefly had received A grades on its health inspections. How did this happen? As the number of affected people climbed, the TV cameras started showing up. The online community began weighing in. Some made jokes; some expressed disgust and vilified Firefly?s management.

?The first thing we had to do was figure out the situation and be sensitive to the people who got hurt—the people who were hurt by our restaurant,? Tabitha says. ?And then we had to let people know how we were fixing it.?

They decided to keep the restaurant shuttered until the new location, already slated to replace the old one, was ready a few weeks later. Meanwhile, they called a meeting of managers and key employees. ?You have to get your employees involved and remember this isn?t just happening to you, the owners,? Tabitha says. ?It?s their jobs and their ability to feed their kids, too. Let them know what?s happening, what needs to change, and let them tell you what needs to change.?

They kept tabs on the health district?s investigation and hired a veteran food-safety expert, Tim Moulson of TERM Management Consulting, to retrain staff and overhaul the restaurant?s food-handling procedures at all three locations. Key managers are now required to pass the National Restaurant Association?s ServSafe certification program. With one location closed and business down at the other two, Firefly also had to lay off some employees, so they started with the few who weren?t adopting the changes as readily.

?I can say honestly that I?m glad when a [health district] inspector shows up. I want them to come in,? John says. ?It?s a good feeling to be so confident.?

Firefly?s swift action and sincere communication, experts say, are the keys to rebuilding the restaurant?s reputation. ?The owners didn?t try to explain away the problem,? notes Manya Susoev, a digital-media consultant who?s worked with the Light Group?s Fix, Stack and Yellowtail restaurants. ?At no point did they give that nonapology apology, ?We?re sorry if you felt bad.? They promised to fix things, took action to fix things and then kept the information flowing.?

By contrast there?s Amy?s Baking Company in Scottsdale, which went into full social media meltdown after an appearance on Gordon Ramsay?s Kitchen Nightmares. The owners took to attacking their critics, eventually earning nationwide coverage for their self-perpetuating tirades against social media users.

?Then they took it even farther and claimed they were hacked,? Susoev says. ?It?s the excuse du jour. It will only make things worse.?

And locally, Bar+Bistro owner Wes Isbutt regrets an on-camera interview he gave about his restaurant being shut down for a day in April after a health district inspection. Soon, a crew walked in with cameras rolling for KTNV Channel 13?s ?Dirty Dining? segment. ?I had no chance,? Isbutt says. ?The format is set up to catch you off guard. They want you to destroy yourself.? And Isbutt, an outspoken critic of the health district, admits he did just that. ?We?re still high on their website because I made for good TV.?

The Simmonses had made the right initial moves. But the public relations crisis was only beginning.

?Monday morning started with one [TV news] camera outside the door,? John says. ?Then all of sudden every reporter in town was calling. I said, ?Man, I need help.?? So Firefly hired a public relations agency for the first time.

Unlike national restaurant chains, which have large marketing and public relations budgets, local restaurants seldom have PR agencies on retainer. In a crisis, that absence leaves owners overwhelmed. Public relations professionals can also help clients anticipate questions, prepare for interviews and stick to best practices in social media.

“A crisis is the worst time to wade through the nasty waters of comments coming at you,” Susoev says. “You can’t hide behind an agency—you still have to be in charge of the message—but they can guide you through the communications process and keep you focused on what’s important rather than the emotion involved.”

The Las Vegas restaurant market adds a particular twist to this. So many restaurants are in casinos, which don’t allow television cameras on property without prior arrangements. So, KTNV “couldn’t ambush someone at Julian Serrano [in Aria] when they were shut down,” Isbutt notes, referring to a 2012 health-inspection closure of that tapas restaurant. “They target independent owners like me because we can be caught off guard so easily.”

In hindsight, he should have ignored the camera crew, Isbutt says. “They weren’t interested in learning the facts. Just in my reaction.”

Social media was both a key to Firefly’s response to the crisis and an essential element for building trust for the future. Pete Codella, a former president of the Las Vegas chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, says business owners should leave negative online comments up (except those that are vulgar or offensive) and respond first in the same place the critics complained. The online community is essentially a free focus group.

“The virtual world is just a reflection of the physical,” he says. “If you were in your restaurant and you saw a drink dropped on a customer, you’d go over and make sure you addressed it. Take that same mentality online. Respond appropriately and you’ll strengthen the relationship with your customers.”

That’s a lesson Firefly won’t soon forget. When the news broke, the Simmonses were stunned by some of the more mean-spirited comments, and frustrated by misinformation. They soon began posting regular updates as information came in from the health district. By the time the restaurant reopened May 24 in the new location, supporters drowned out a couple of negative Facebook posts.

Tabitha says she realized that some of the commenters saw Firefly as a headless corporate restaurant. In the past, Firefly posted notices about upcoming events, but didn’t use social media to foster active conversations. Now she and John use social media as more of a two-way street, emphasizing Firefly’s local ownership and community presence. Mixed in with posts about new dishes and photos of customers’ celebrations are briefs about the restaurant’s extensive food-safety retraining. One customer responded by encouraging more such posts, because he was nervous about eating there again. Firefly posted an invitation for him to tour the location. And then another Facebook user asked to join.

“Now we realize that [social media] is how we can put a human face on the restaurant,” Tabitha says. “It’s a place where we can show that we walk our talk.”

In the past month, she says, business has picked up at all three Firefly restaurants, and the chorizo dishes are selling at the same pace as they were before the outbreak. The new Paradise location has its official grand opening on August 1.

“We survived starting up as an underfunded restaurant; we survived that terrible economy,” John says. “But this is so different. It’s never going to go away, but we hope we’ll be stronger for it.”

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