The owner of Marco’s Pizza in Saks says he is in danger of losing his store as sales have declined after a delivery driver was diagnosed with a health problem unrelated to the restaurant.
The Alabama Public Health Department in October warned customers of Marco’s Pizza to contact health care providers after the driver was diagnosed with hepatitis A. About a month later, the department issued a second statement clearing the restaurant of any health hazards.
“As a result of Marco’s Pizza’s quick actions and those of the Calhoun County Health Department, no additional cases have been reported,” Dr. Karen Landers, a medical officer for the state Health Department, was quoted as saying in the statement. “I commend Marco’s for working so well with us.”
Despite being cleared by the Health Department, Shameem Chowdhury said last week his store has taken a financial hit from which he fears it will not rebound. Public relations professors said Chowdhury first needs to win back the confidence of his customers to see a difference in his sales.
“I spoke with Marco’s corporate and if the sales do not pick up eventually it will shut down,” Chowdhury said. “I personally find this preposterous because Marco’s is a good-running store that was collaterally damaged.”
Efforts to reach Chowdhury this week were unsuccessful.
Hepatitis A is a viral infection that can be transmitted person-to-person and by eating food or drinks prepared by an infected person, according to the release. Hepatitis A vaccine can prevent infection, but only if given within 14 days of exposure to the virus.
The store, on average, once brought in about $77,000 a month, Chowdhury said.
“In the past three months I’ve lost about $120,000 in sales,” he said. “I’ve tried marketing more but it doesn’t seem to be working.”
While Chowdhury did not blame the employee for getting sick, he did describe his business as collateral damage.
“The employee did not get sick at the restaurant,” he said. “We got included in this when the hospital asked who she worked for.”
Suzanne Horsley, a public relations professor at the University of Alabama, said in instances where a store’s reputation is at stake, “communication is the best way to solve this type of conflict.”
“I teach my students a three-step process,” she said. “First, the company has to acknowledge the situation and second acknowledge customers are concerned about the situation. The third step is to explain what happened to create that situation and what you’re doing to prevent it.”
Horsley referred to the Mexican-themed fast-food chain Chipotle as a similar example.
“In 2016 they shut down all their stores for several hours to hold employee food safety meetings after an E. coli outbreak,” she said. “They were willing to risk a portion of their sales to make sure all their employees were properly trained to avoid food contamination.”
While Chowdhury’s employee did not contract hepatitis at the store, he could benefit from a public acknowledgment of the incident, Horsley said.
“There might have been a lot of uncertainty about the situation and about what hepatitis A is,” she said. “Uncertainty is your enemy in a crisis. The first step is to explain it was an isolated incident.”
Teri Henley, another public relations professor at UA, said in times of crisis it is important to be proactive and transparent.
“A quick Google search shows that several news outlets shared the story about the driver, but fewer followed up with the story that the restaurant came back clean,” she said. “This is where it becomes important for the restaurant to rely on other forms of communication besides news media.”
Henley said the restaurant should have direct communication with customers about the incident. Chowdhury said after the Health Department first reported the incident, employees would direct callers to the Health Department with any concerns.
“The owner certainly should have direct communications with its clients where it reinforces its clean rating and utilizes social media to get accurate information out,” Henley said. “The best thing that a business can do is offer consistently excellent service and product.”
Horsley said once trust has been restored, it would be a good time to do a promotion.
“Use advertisements as way to issue information and good will about the incident,” she said. “That’s probably a better strategy than going to the bottom line with a coupon or special promotion.”
In Chipotle’s case, Horsley said, publicity about the food safety meeting gave them additional advertising.
“The publicity they got actually opened their door to share information about a burrito special they were going to promote,” she said. “It’s a good idea to do a special but you have to regain confidence first.”