San Diego-Area Restaurant Chain Tries Bread Stick Diplomacy after E. Coli Outbreak.

©The San Diego Union-Tribune (San Diego, CA)

 October 25, 2003 

Byline: Rachel Laing

Oct. 25--No such a thing as a free lunch?

Try telling that to the hundreds of customers lined up Friday around noon at Pat & Oscar's in Mission Valley. They got up to the counter, ordered a meal of pizza, salad and bread sticks, and had it brought to their table with a smile all without opening their wallets.

The meals the restaurant gave out to anyone who showed up from Thursday through yesterday were part of a costly damage-control program. Earlier this month, an estimated 38 people who ate at the casual dining chain were sickened by lettuce contaminated with the E. coli bacterium.

With business down significantly after the episode, the company hired a crisis-management expert, set up a toll-free hotline and invited television news crews to publicize new lettuce-washing procedures.

For George Hunter, who's in charge of the Southern California region's locations for the chain, the crisis has been a long, strange trip that began with his complete disbelief.

Beyond consistently receiving high marks from County Health Department inspections, the company pays a private sanitation auditor to inspect its operations. An E. coli contamination seemed impossible, he said.

"At first I didn't believe it," Hunter recalls of learning the outbreak was linked to Pat & Oscar's. "I know that sounds a little arrogant, but I just know what we go through and the training to keep things sanitary."

Hunter's initial assessment that the restaurant's procedures were not at fault proved to be right. Within 24 hours, the contamination was linked to one of the produce suppliers that provided triple-washed, sealed lettuce to the restaurant.

Pat & Oscar's had already pulled all its lettuce and vegetable items off the menu about a third of its offerings until the exact cause was determined.

Once the outbreak was definitively linked to lettuce from the supplier, that vendor was immediately replaced.

With that, Health Department officials declared the threat to the restaurant's customers to be over. The threat to the eatery's reputation and business, however, was just beginning.

Pat & Oscar's parent company, Worldwide Restaurant Concepts, enlisted Steven Fink, president of Los Angeles-based Lexicon Communications, a crisis-management firm.

The firm has particular expertise in food-borne illness; it handled the last major E. coli contamination in San Diego County the Jack in the Box outbreak that sickened hundreds of people and killed four children a decade ago.

When Fink met with Pat & Oscar's executives, he said, board chairman [Chuck Boppell]  had one order: Don't let the lawyers to run the show. In other words, don't let the fear of litigation shut down communication with the public or prevent the company from taking responsibility for the incident.

Fink set up a toll-free line where customers sickened by the contamination could call to get information and to learn how to request reimbursement for any medical expenses they incurred as a result.

The hotline has received more than 80 calls, many of which were requests for information by anxious customers who wanted to know if they should be tested for the bacterium, Fink said.

Employees of the restaurants were briefed on how to answer customers' questions, and the company printed up informational fliers and table tents to keep customers informed.

Fink kept open the lines of communication to the media to get out the message that Pat & Oscar's had isolated the cause of the problem and corrected it. In addition to changing its lettuce supplier, the company instituted its own lettuce-washing procedure as an added precaution.

Camera crews from local TV stations were invited into the kitchens of the restaurant to film the new procedure.

Most importantly, the message that the company was not to blame for the outbreak was repeated over and over.

Pat & Oscar's handling of the crisis was right on, said George Belch, head of the marketing department at San Diego State University. The company got the message out quickly that while it also was a victim of the supplier, the restaurant would take responsibility for the consequences.

"It's not like you want to pass the buck, but you have to let the market know 'It's not what we did,' " Belch said. "The first thing is to let them know it's not your policies or procedures that caused it."

Belch said inviting customers in for a free meal has several benefits. It not only sends a message of good will to the community, but it's also a surefire way to fill the restaurants.

"It's to get people back in the habit of going there and realizing they can eat there and they'll be fine," Belch said.

While business was down as much as 70 percent in some locations, Fink said, the free meals are solely a gesture of gratitude for the outpouring of support the restaurant got from sympathetic and loyal customers.

"This is a legitimate thank you offer, and if getting more people back into the restaurant is an unintended consequence, so be it," said Fink.

Pat & Oscar's served 16,000 people on Thursday and estimated the offer would bring a total of 50,000 people through the doors far above regular weekend numbers, Fink said.

Because the "costs were secondary" to the ends, Fink said, he wouldn't speculate on how much the offer would cost the company. But based on the prices listed on the menu for items being given away, the retail value of serving 50,000 customers would be about half a million dollars.

Despite lines a few hundred yards out the door at many locations, customers seem pleased with the offer. Mehrdad Nabizadeh, who was dining on the patio of the Mission Valley location, said he used the giveaway as an excuse to try out the restaurant.

He said he heard on the news that the contamination was not the restaurant's fault, so he was unconcerned about safety. Now, having eaten two free meals there one on Thursday and one Friday Nabizadeh said he'll be back when he has to pay his own way.

"Actually, I think they're going to gain some customers from this," he said.

(c) 2003, The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.