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Cowfish made people sick – twice. Here’s why you should go back

Cowfish sushi and burger bar in SouthPark closed twice because of suspected Norovirus illnesses.
Cowfish sushi and burger bar in SouthPark closed twice because of suspected Norovirus illnesses. COWFISH.COM

Have you been to Cowfish, the popular SouthPark burger and sushi joint? I have, once. It was hip. It was good. It was busy. Very busy.

Until two weekends ago.

On June 5, Cowfish closed after some customers reported flu-like systems. The restaurant reopened two days later, then closed on June 10 after more reports of illness. Now, after a thorough cleaning for the food-borne illness Norovirus, the restaurant reopened this week.

Some friends have told me they’re wary about returning. Other customers-to-be have gone social with their fretfulness:

We should do the opposite. We should go back – or just go, if you haven’t already.

Why?

From business executives to government officials to public figures, people do all the wrong things when something goes wrong. They pretend the bad thing didn’t happen. They hide it. They admit only what they think they have to – which is often what people already know.

Cowfish did none of that.

When the restaurant heard of sick patrons, owner Alan Springate quickly closed for cleaning on what would have been a packed Friday night.

When three more people reported illness after the restaurant’s reopening, Cowfish promptly closed again for a more comprehensive cleaning.

The restaurant also stayed in contact with the Mecklenburg County Health Department. And all along, they told their customers what was happening.

“We don’t always get this level of cooperation in situations like this,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, the county’s health director. “This is really what we need – restaurants who take this seriously and respond appropriately.”

That is, by the way, what crisis consultants advise businesses and agencies and public figures to do when something goes wrong or somebody does wrong.

When faced with PR disaster, the steps are simple: Recognize the problem quickly, act fast and thoroughly, and over-communicate with everyone who might be affected.

The pain of doing so – and yes, it’s painful – is rarely as bad as what you endure when you’re caught hiding something.

So why do people avoid coming clean? Because it’s human nature – not to mention business and political culture – to want to minimize the short-term damage.

That’s what Hillary Clinton tried to do in her slow and bungled responses to email and Clinton Foundation scandals.

It’s what the University of North Carolina did with years of denying and deflecting reports of academic fraud involving athletes.

It’s what happened to countless businesses that have waited too long to respond to crises big and small, hoping things would blow over.

In those moments we learn about the people and companies involved. We learn who would elbow their way onto a lifeboat, and we learn who’s smart enough not to think of themselves at the expense of others. We learn whom to trust with our money, our political decisions, our food.

Plescia, the county health director, says Cowfish is now safe for customers. “I have a lot of confidence in them,” he says. He’s having dinner there tonight.

You should do the same, at least sometime soon. Don’t punish Cowfish for its health scare. Reward the restaurant for its response. Because no one knows when or where the next bad thing will happen, but it’s good to know who you can trust when it does.

Peter St. Onge

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