Ewww! It’s been a rough stretch for easily-squicked diners: Last month, the Consumerist posted a picture of a (now former) Taco Bell worker licking a stack of taco shells; then a photo of a guy behind the counter at Wendy’s serving himself Frosty directly from the machine into his mouth surfaced on Reddit and went viral faster than it takes you to order at the drive-thru. And earlier this year, KFC fired an employee who appeared to be licking a tray of mashed potatoes.
Now, the latest chapter in this restaurant gross-out saga comes courtesy of an employee at a Florida Golden Corral buffet — and Reddit, of course. In a two-minute video, employee Brandon Huber shows the restaurant’s outdoor dumpster area, where raw hamburger, uncooked ribs and other partially-prepared food is stacked.
Golden Corral responded pretty much the same way every restaurant caught in a similar situation this year has: It posted messages on Twitter and YouTube, saying that this was an isolated incident that was dealt with quickly. Golden Corral stated that the food was thrown out and never served to customers and that the offending employee (the manager in this case, not the kid who filmed the disgusting conditions) had been given the boot.
What’s behind this epidemic of restaurant gross-out moments going public? Social media in general, and Reddit and YouTube in particular, have a lot to do with it. These outlets give poorly paid employees who don’t seem to care much about their jobs a quick way to take action in a big way against employers they don’t respect.
In a USA Today story about the Taco Bell incident, consultant Erika Napoletano said restaurant industry labor practices breed the kind of discontent that can make posting an icky shot or clip online irresistible. “If you hire people who treat your brand as disposable, that’s the kind of PR you’ll get,” she said.
It’s hard to argue that low pay plus smartphones and bad judgement can be an explosive mixture, but while the phrase “public relations nightmare” gets thrown around often, the truth is that these incidents don’t really put a dent in sales, according to restaurant analysts.
“The stories tend to fade pretty quickly, so there’s not a sustained effect on sales or brand damage,” says Todd Hooper, a retail strategist at consulting company Kurt Salmon.
“In general, we see food scares — pink slime, tainted scallions and other debacles — don’t have many long-term effects on chain restaurant traffic,” says Kathy Hayden, a food service analyst at market research firm Mintel.
The ick factor is understandably higher when it comes to what we eat. “Food, in general, is a target for these types of PR situations,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at the NPD Group. “There is a sensitivity about the quality and preparation of the food at restaurants,” whether the place in question is a fast-food outlet or a fine dining establishment.
“There is always a leap of faith in putting food preparation in other peoples’ hands, and it’s a leap most of us take every day,” Hayden says. Usually, we adopt a sort of out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality, but Reddit, YouTube and the like can make that hard when the “ewww” moments get put on display. “Lately, social media has been reminding us of the occasional pitfalls of doing so,” Hayden says.
Surprisingly, it’s also social media that actually helps restaurants weather these stomach-churning scandals. “It’s easier for everyone to capture and spread outrageous stories” nowadays, says Hooper. “Ironically, the resulting noise suffocates most of the stories.”
“The videos trend on social media for a New York minute and then they are replaced by the next buzzworthy video. Our collective memories are short,” Riggs says.
That is, provided the company acts quickly and decisively. “The way a company handles the ‘ick factor’ can help mitigate the effects,” Hayden says.
It’s a pretty familiar script by now. So long as the affected chain fires the employees responsible for the embarrassment, issues an apology, and describe how the incident was isolated and not reflective of their standards and practices, most fans of the brand seem willing to keep frequenting the restaurant.
“The consumers who find these stories most disturbing likely avoid fast food already,” Hooper points out. On the flip side, people who like the brand generally find ways to explain away the licking, slurping or whatever other gross behavior took place. Hooper says we do this by comparing the images with our own experiences at the chain’s restaurants, and may come to the conclusion that the the moment was a one-off example of bad judgement or the act of a disgruntled employee.
The one thing a company should not to, according to consultants, is try to ignore the problem. Domino’s Pizza found this out the hard way four years ago, when a video of an employee sticking cheese up his nose and flicking snot onto a sandwich hit YouTube, where it was viewed more than a million times in just a few days.
Initially, Domino’s didn’t respond, and public sentiment — much of it negative — filled up the social media universe. “We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea,” Domino’s spokesman Tim McIntyre told the New York Times. “What we missed was the perpetual mushroom effect of viral sensations.”