Monday, February 26, 2007

Rats! All-time Marketing Challenge

By now, of course, you have no doubt seen the videos of the dozens a rats having an off-hours spree at a KFC-Taco Bell in Greenwich Village last week. Apparently, someone tipped off a TV station, which dispatched an indie videographer to run rat patrol and check the scene out.

I know that rats happen to restaurants. Many years ago, when I was in college, I waitressed at a rat-ridden restaurant. On occasion, that rats would appear on the floor while there were patrons in the restaurant, and we were warned that if we screamed at the sight of a rat, we'd be fired. Mostly, however, they came out when the place was emptied out and the waitresses were doing the final clean up. (A task that involved, for some reason, wiping the wooden tables down with hot coffee to cut the grease.)

To keep the rats at bay, we would pitch soup spoons at the rat holes after the last customer had left, on the assumption that the rats would hear the noise and stay away. But some nights, the spoon tactic didn't work, and the bold and brazen rats would start coming out while we were cleaning. Occasionally, the manager would come up with a little hand pistol and fire a couple of shots at them. Mostly we were left to fend for ourselves. If things got really bad, we were allowed to leave the clean-up until the next day.

On one occasion, one of the sinks was clogged up. A dishboy known as The Animal managed to unstop the sink by pulling a dead rat out of the drain.

As I write this, I can't imagine how I didn't just walk out the first day, other than to say that it was only for the summer and I really needed the job. I will also say that this restaurant is still open, and I shudder every time I pass by it - and laugh to myself as I see the patrons queued up outside. My guess is that it has cleaned up its act, but I would not venture in to find out. The idea of eating there is unfathomable to me.

But I worked at this joint in a time long ago, when there were no video cameras or cell-phones. The Greenwich Village KFC-Taco Bell was not so lucky.

Newsday reporter Carl Macgowan chronicled the KFC-Taco Bell story, which was widely picked up. (As, of course, was the ultra-appetizing video.)

The camera man, Rafael Garcia, got right into the spirit of things. Macgowan quotes him as saying:

There were enough creatures in that room that they could have devoured a human being…. It was a frenzy. They were going up walls. They were jumping up and down.

I-Scream. You-Scream. We all scream for KFC.

One of the kickers, of course, was that the restaurant had actually passed inspection the day before the rat fest. Back for a redo on Friday, inspectors found:

...many violations, including rodent droppings, holes in the floor and ceiling, stagnant water on the floor and lack of heat, the department said.

Sometimes when you approach things with a fresh eye...

Yum! Brands - parent company for KFC and Taco Bell - is, according to its web site, "committed to go the extra mile to make our customers happy. Customer Mania!"

Customer Mania, alright.

Understandably, yum's  - make that mum's - the word on Yum!'s homepage, and they had a little less than a mouthful to say in their terse response to the incident:

This is an isolated incident at a single restaurant at 331 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village, New York and it is totally unacceptable. The restaurant is closed and we will not allow it to be reopened until it has been sanitized and given a complete clean bill of health. We want to assure our customers that nothing is more important to us than food safety and their health.

Well, just suppose this restaurant does get "sanitized" and receives that clean bill of health. Can you imagine the challenge of getting anyone in the City of New York to actually come back and eat there? Just trying to think of any other company that's been faced with quite this level of market challenge gives me both a headache and a stomach ache.

What's a marketer to do when the doors re-open?

I suppose that they could tout that it's opened under new management. (The rats that were running this place are gone.)

Or they could come up with a new motto. How about KFC: return to finger-lickin' good. (It's not just paw and whisker lickin' good, my friends.)

And how unfortunate a choice is it that the Taco Bell mascot is a Chihuahua, a dog who many consider to be the canine equivalent of a rat.

Yum! Brands will obvious try to put this story behind them, but I can't imagine that anyone will be going into any of their restaurants for a good long while without thinking just what is in this batter-encrusted, bony, salt infused morsel of deep-fried gunk?

From a marketing perspective, I guess this is just a story that Yum! Brand marketers have got to pretty much ignore from this point on. Although I think they would have done themselves a bit of good by announcing that they were closing down their Greenwich Village restaurant forever.


Mary Schmidt said...

Does anybody remember the "urban legend" about KFC frying up rat parts? Hmmmm....

Maureen Rogers said...

Urban "legend" my foot (or my chicken claw). In the restaurant where I worked that had the rat problem, the cooks sometimes fried up cockroaches and put it in with the fisherman's platter.Tasty!