ST. PETERSBURG — On April 8, Ceviche had its "Tylenol moment." Its St. Petersburg location, one of six, was closed for 24 hours after a disastrous health inspection revealed a raft of violations, including a serious roach infestation. The popular Spanish restaurant reopened the next day after an all-hands-on-deck push to clean and correct the infractions.
But, according to Robin Roberts, chief marketing officer for the small chain, the damage had been done.
As Tylenol learned with its 1982 recall and Toyota did with sticky accelerator pedals in 2010, brand recovery can be about repentance and dignity. A brand's ability to react decisively and transparently is often central to keeping market share.
Roberts declined to say exactly how much revenue was lost in April at the St. Petersburg location or others, but she did say, "We're still recovering. Business is getting better, but we are by no means where we were before the incident. It was a huge black eye."
The general manager of the St. Petersburg location was let go and replaced, as were the cleaning and pest control companies contracted by Ceviche.
"They should have discovered the problems," Roberts says, adding ominously, "and there are still casualties to come."
Fixes of this sort, though, are a bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, so Roberts and the management of Ceviche decided to be more proactive. They enlisted Everclean Services, a leading food safety audit provider based in California. This third-party company will conduct monthly reviews of the restaurants' standards of operations and dole out a "grade" that will be posted at the door for the customers to see.
Posting of inspection results is mandatory in New York City restaurants and a regular practice in other parts of the country and in Canada. Still, the cynic may wonder if Ceviche's self-policing approach will result in full transparency — what's to stop the restaurant manager from only posting the good news? Would Ceviche welcome mandatory posting of Department of Business and Professional Regulation health inspections?
"I would encourage it. It would absolutely motivate everyone to not let little things slip by," asserts Roberts, going on to explain that with Everclean's program, which is used by national brands such as P.F. Chang's, surprise and scheduled audits follow the same rules as the state's inspections. Essentially, this service provides a real-time feedback loop to Ceviche's management team so that errors are caught before the Department of Business and Professional Regulation gets involved. According to Roberts, Everclean charges $300 per store for on-site safe-practices training and $200 for individual store audits. The company will perform unannounced monthly audits and training for the first year for all Ceviche locations.
Still, employing Everclean can be seen as a public relations move, one in keeping with Ceviche's recent push to present a positive image to the public. Undertaking a significant makeover at the Beach Drive site (which includes Ceviche, Pincho y Pincho and the late-night downstairs Flamenco Bar), the company is also hosting a fundraiser at the downtown restaurant for the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg on Thursday, with its own $10,000 guaranteed donation.
"We've been around 16 years and never had something like this happen," Roberts said. "It's something we're not okay with ever happening again."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.