This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Jonas M Luster, jml.is:
My old mentor, Francois, once made the (totally scientifically incorrect) joke that food borne illnesses are the original viral marketing for restaurants—nothing gets a restaurant into the news faster than a few diners keeling over from a bug.
Let’s play a typical phonecall about a food borne illness, hit the buzzer a few times, analyze, and then move to a wider analysis of this topic.
“Allo, this is Pom Patapom’s Pancake Place, how can I make you full?”
“This is Parry Hotter, I ate at your place last night, and now I am so sick I can barely walk”
“I am very sorry, Sir”
As much as you’d want to hear this line, you won’t. Why? Because the history books are full of great restaurants that didn’t get diners sick but were “very sorry,” a statement that can and will be used against the restaurant in a court of law. Anything that can even remotely be construed as an admission of feeling guilty can cost potentially millions. Most lawyers smile when I say that, some claim they could get me off that rap, and the father of all food-borne illness lawsuits, William Marler ( ) gets a little dribble of saliva whenever he hears it—it’s a “won case” to quote him.
So let’s rewind …
“This is Parry Hotter, I ate at your place last night and now I am so sick I can barely walk”
“We are not aware of any other cases at this point, Mr. Hotter, were there other members of your party who also are now suffering from symptoms that could be food related?”
By now, let’s hope he used his credit card, we know which table and what was served. We can see what overlapped and what didn’t. That’s what cover reports and reservation computers are for.
“I see here your party had the cod, the steak, and two pork chops. Which meal did you have, Mr. Hotter?”
“I had the cod. Listen, I don’t want to do this, I am sick and I have to hit the head soon, I just want to …”
“Mr. Hotter, we’ll do anything in our power to find if there is anything wrong with our food. We have no had any other complaints, and if we could just take a second and narrow this down, I’d be forever in your debt.”
Interlude and More
If no one else got sick, we’re more or less done here. From now on out, it’s just making the diner feel good. We need to take his phone number, address, and name, because if another call comes in, then we do have a problem, need to contact Mr. Hotter again, and make him whole.
The respondent now calls the chef. If that’s me, I’ll drive in, secure all ingredients with potential contamination, and wait if there are more reports. If that’s the case, I’ll contact the CDC, which I am obligated to do by law, the purveyor, and I will call all affected diners to reimburse them, offer them assistance, and a meal on the house if they feel like coming back.
From here, my effective and responsible reaction is to work hard to contain, inform, and cooperate. The CDC and the state health department work with me to make sure MY kitchen is clean, the former is not a law enforcement or regulatory agency, so they’re taking notes and advise, the state health people are the ones with the law in their hands.
My contact to the diner ends at this point. I have to be careful if there is no actual illness, and I am prohibited from contacting them if there is until an official investigation is underway. Talking to diners could be construed as witness tampering if there’s a state’s case against me or my purveyors.
All in all, we’re in a bind here. We get accused and sued for food borne issues quite a bit, though it’s extremely rare for there to be merit. So we have to be careful what we say and how we say it. If there is merit, we’re even less likely to be able to contact the diner. We try to be as forthcoming and supportive as possible, however, wherever that is not a bad idea.
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