Code Red

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Don’t wait for the next disaster to implement a crisis-management plan

No doubt, 2009 was a tough year, but it wasn’t the only difficult period of the past decade. While the world was still adjusting to a new public consciousness spurred by the 9/11 attacks, in 2003, the last health epidemic of note — SARS — reared its ugly head. As if that wasn’t enough, mere months later parts of Canada and the U.S. were plunged into darkness as a massive power outage dimmed the lights across Ontario, likewise paralyzing countless foodservice operators. At a few of the Atlific-managed hotels in Toronto, restaurant cooks scavenged the fridges for perishables to make cold entrées and sandwiches, uncorked some wine and made the most of a bad situation.

Since then debilitating crises like the listeria outbreak and now, H1N1, continue to remind operators how a crisis can blindside a company, or industry, in a heartbeat. Our government has taken note, mandating risk and crisis management curriculum, says Joanne Gellatly, academic program coordinator for the Hospitality Operations Management Degree at George Brown College in Toronto. Unfortunately, in 2004 — after 9/11, SARS and the blackout had battered the city’s hospitality sector — the educator’s search for textbooks for a new Strategic Crisis Management course reached a dead end. “There were literally no textbooks, and I had to wait for an author to actually design one,” she explains.

Today, finding resources is a little easier. There’s no need to look further than government websites and organizations like the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association for tips on avoiding the spread of germs, like listeria, or viruses, like H1N1. Guidelines for overcoming other man-made or natural catastrophes may not be as easy to come by, but there are steps to take to prepare for potential threats to your business.
The trick is to “manage the potential peril and keep it under control so that it doesn’t elevate into further levels of crisis,” advises Gellatly, cautioning that one incident can devastate an entire sector. “[Toronto] lost almost 30 per cent of business across the board because of SARS, and that’s when the entire industry came back with those value-added packages; with the hotel and the dinner and the entertainment.” She also points to the more recent example of a deadly foodborne illness outbreak, adding that, “Maple Leaf changed the way business happened for all meat organizations.”

The last thing any company wants is to ruin their credibility. It’s a big concern at service-solutions provider Sodexo, which provides foodservice at places like hospitals, schools, remote sites, corporate environments and correctional facilities. “We have a lot of different types of clients and some simply cannot stop operating. We must have the ability to support them; that’s our promise to our clients and if we can’t keep it, they’re going to go out and find somebody who can,” says Peter B. Rosiere, vice-president of Risk Management for Sodexo, Inc. in Maryland.

SIR Corp. restaurant group president Corey Dalton agrees. “A strong crisis management plan is essential to navigate our organization through challenging times,” he says. “It is too late to start ‘filling in the blanks’ while a crisis is brewing so being prepared makes it easier to recover if and when a problem arises.”
Small companies can do it, too. “Think of everything that could go wrong and try to plan for the three worst,” offers Sodexo’s Rosiere, as way of advice.

Gellatly suggests planning ahead, taking stock of business and setting up policies that feed into the company vision. H1N1, which could potentially cripple foodservice operators, provides the perfect example. “We handled it by getting a lot of different people from different parts of the company involved early on in the process,” says Rosiere of Sodexo’s battle against the flu pandemic. “We’ve kept it from becoming a crisis by doing a lot of early education prepared materials, standard responses, having the critical health experts involved and making sure that we had all of our materials in multiple languages,” a special consideration for the global company.

The last thing you want is to have a 150-page crisis-management manual collecting dust on the bookshelf, says Rosiere. “We practise our call-out procedure/notification procedure once a quarter,” he says. “We’ll come up with a scenario and basically walk through how people would react to it.”

It’s a similar scenario at Atlific Hotels. “A lot of [our] properties do internal training to be prepared for whatever eventuality comes up,” says Robert Hood, corporate food and beverage manager, speaking of fire and health and safety training, amongst other things. “Whether it’s duty managers and guest-service managers, everybody knows where the water shut-off valves are and who to call in terms of maintenance and support either during business hours or after hours.”

But Hood cautions that the employees who’ll make the most effective troubleshooters are the ones that can analyze a situation and then make the best call applying the knowledge they have learned. “As much as we train our people to be ready for it, it’s not like a script.”

It’s true — it’s impossible to prepare for every eventuality, but the good news is some companies are able to rely on what they’ve previously planned to react to similar situations; at Sodexo, the avian flu plan provided the perfect cheat sheet for H1N1.

Reacting is one thing, but tracking down able-bodied workers might prove to be the real challenge. During Hurricane Katrina a huge chunk of Sodexo workers were evacuated. “We learned we needed a central way for employees to let us know they were OK and they were able to work,” recalls Rosiere. “If we had units nearby New Orleans that were still up and running, we could ramp up with additional labour resources to help the people already there.”

It’s why communication before, during and after a crisis is so important. Consider Maple Leaf Foods Inc. and the actions of its president and CEO, Michael McCain. The highly visible executive spread the word, alerting the public at the onset of the listeria outbreak; released public apologies; kept the media (thereby the public) in the loop; implemented daily test-result updates internally; introduced a blog to provide further transparency; and, most recently, had the company website revamped — all key communication tools designed to disseminate and prevent further crises.

Most importantly, the communication is ongoing. In an interview with F&H this past spring, Iain Stewart, Maple Leaf’s senior vice-president of Food Safety and Transfor-mation, added one key lesson the meat packagers learned — the sharing of data and learning within your company is critical. And Stewart believes you should share it with your competition, too.

Rosiere understands the value of good communication as well. “One of the real challenges we have, if something happens, is getting communications back up the chain-of-command so that the crisis-managing experts can support the local management and bring in resources as needed.”

All these challenges require a keen and effective strategy to overcome but it’s recovering after the crisis that’s paramount. “It’s taking accountability, changing the way you do business and then showing that you’ve learned from it and that you’ve evolved, not only as an organization but as a sector,” George Brown’s Gellatly says, bringing the Maple Leaf example back to mind.

The program coordinator recalls the impact the blackout had at a company she worked for at the time. The hotel, which was part of a chain, earned more money barbecuing food to sell during the emergency, while also narrowly escaping a frightening kitchen fire. “They ended up putting together a crisis plan,” Gellatly says, summing up the story.

No one is immune. “As small as you are or as big as you are, [you can’t] put your head in the sand and say: ‘it won’t happen to me,’” emphasizes Atlific’s Hood. “Knowledge is power, and being prepared and communicating with our associates…gives people more knowledge. And the more knowledge our associates have, the better they’re able to do their jobs.”
Rosiere shares a similar message. “There’s a famous politician who says: ‘All politics is local.’ You can use a fairly similar analogy with crisis management.”

Illustration by Paul Blow

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Maya joined Kostuch Media team in 2011 and has been responsible for increasing company’s digital presence. She focuses on providing communications support by optimizing web marketing and SEO strategies via content marketing, e-mail marketing and social media. She also holds an undergraduate degree in Food and Nutrition and a Masters degree in Nutrition Communication from Ryerson University.

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