If there is any one industry in which word of mouth can do great damage in a hurry, that industry would be food service, especially restaurants. A single round of food poisoning can drive away customers for months. Any tale of contamination or unsanitary conditions that circulates in a local community creates a major crisis for a restaurant owner.
Juan and Bonita Gonzales knew the risks when they opened their new restaurant, The Mexican Villa, in a small shopping center in North Canton, Ohio. With the recent wave of Mexican immigrants to the area, two other successful Mexican restaurants had opened across town. The couple believed that if they provided high-quality food in a pleasant atmosphere, their restaurant could succeed.
The business opened in the fall of 2015. First-year sales were better than expected. A diverse mixture of Hispanic and Caucasian customers regularly dined at The Mexican Villa. The restaurant had two distinct serving areas: the dining room and the cantina. In the dining room, authentic Mexican music played softly in the background. There was plenty of room between tables. The floors were carpeted and clean. Servers were dressed in bright colored clothing and were carefully trained to be pleasant, efficient, and helpful. In the cantina, the music was louder. The floors were tile. Smoking was permitted in a bar-type atmosphere. Television sets were tuned to sports programs. In both areas, customers were quickly greeted and served salsa and chips at no charge. The menu was the same for both areas.
Both the cantina and the dining room had regular customers who ate at the Villa as often as once a week. The Villa also had a strong lunch business, where a lighter menu with lower prices was featured. The restaurant was near a business district and shopping center, which provided access to many potential lunch guests.
The crisis occurred after The Mexican Villa had been open for 15 months. In the spring of 2017, one of the Villa food preparers contracted an infectious case of hepatitis. Hepatitis is highly contagious and dangerous. The local health authorities discovered the problem and forced the Villa to close for 7 days. Word was sent out in the newspaper, on the radio, and on the local television news that anyone who had eaten at the Villa in the past 2 weeks should contact the government health authorities to be tested. Word spread quickly through North Canton about the episode, both in the Spanish-speaking community and to other groups.
Fortunately, no one was infected. The employee had worn protective gloves while preparing food. The safety precautions used at the restaurant had kept the disease from spreading to others.
Juan and Bonita had a limited budget for advertising. Once the news stories had run, the media quickly lost interest. It was impossible for the couple to capture the same audience to tell people that the health crisis had passed. The number of customers who returned after the weeklong closure dropped dramatically. Sales had been down for more than a month. The couple began to wonder if people would ever come back.
1. What kinds of public relations tactics should be used to help The Mexican Villa?
2. Is there any kind of cause-related or event marketing program that might bring people back to the restaurant? Explain your answer.
3. Do you believe The Mexican Villa can be saved, or is it a lost cause? Why?