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What to do when restaurant social media goes wrong

Political unrest and divisiveness, coupled with pandemic stressors, has created an intense landscape for restaurant operators on social media.
Jimmy Johns
Photograph: Shutterstock

David Rudolph, who has worked in crisis communications for more than a quarter-century, has a simple bit of free advice for restaurant operators who may be tempted to engage in emotion-fueled social media posts right now:

Don’t do it. Step away from the keyboard.

Even something as simple as clicking “like” on a divisive Facebook post could ruin a hard-won reputation forged over many years, Rudolph, a senior managing partner at D. Ericson & Associates Public Relations in Detroit, said.

“You need to live a life for public consumption,” he said. “If you have an opinion or thought, keep it off social media.”

A number of restaurants have come under fire in recent weeks after employees or owners posted inflammatory comments on social media.

Some recent examples:

  • In Minneapolis last month, it was revealed that the daughter of the owner of Holy Land, a popular Middle Eastern deli and prepared foods company that opened in 1986, posted racist comments on social media. Lianne Wadi, the company’s catering manager, was fired after her racist posts from several years ago were uncovered by Twitter users. Holy Land lost the lease for its deli in the city’s international Midtown Global Market food hall and at least one grocery store pulled the company’s products amid widespread calls to boycott the company.
  • Workers at a Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches in Woodstock, Ga., filmed themselves playing with a noose made out of bread dough over the 4th of July weekend. The video was shared widely across social media. Jimmy John’s fired the workers and condemned the action.
  • In Portland, Ore., chef and restaurateur John Gorham ended up stepping away from multiple restaurants in the Toro Bravo Group after posting aggressive comments on social media in response to a Black, transgender woman. Late last month, Gorham cut all ties with the restaurant group and transferred leadership to his wife, Renee, according to local media reports.

Stepping aside, while painful, is often the best course of action when an inappropriate social media post becomes a community lightning rod, Rudolph said.

Several years ago, Rudolph had to advise a former client, the co-owner of Bookies Bar & Grille in Detroit, to leave the business after making inflammatory comments on Facebook.

“That was a tough one, to have to tell a client you’ve got to leave your business,” he said. “You’re telling them it’s for the better, for the good of the business. I knew that what I was suggesting is you’re telling somebody you have to give up a part of a way of your life.”

In the case of Bookies, Rudolph first shut down all of the bar’s social media platforms, then issued an apology statement to share with the media.

Firing the owner (or employees) who acted inappropriately on social media is an important step. But it can’t be a restaurant’s only action, he said.

A company needs to show that it is taking action against racism or other bias within the organization and that its growth is continuing beyond the handling of a singular incident, he said.

“You really need to show how this has affected the community at large,” he said. “There’s a certain type of lizard that if you cut its tail off, it’ll grow back. If you’ve just triaged it in one area, you have not solved the problem. You have an organizational problem.”

At Holy Land, owner Majdi Wadi has shared a comprehensive plan to recover from his daughter’s racist posts, including mandatory anti-racism training for all employees, an independent audit of current management practices, and ongoing meetings with community leaders and customers.

“We promise to continue seeking knowledge, self-reflection and actively creating spaces for conversations in addressing the bias and anti-Black sentiment within our community,” Wadi wrote on Facebook last month. “We aim to grow in hopes our community gives us the chance to better understand what they need so we can turn these words into effective long-term action grounded in our faith and beliefs.”

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