Message to the Grassroots

The consultants assessed the restaurant’s overall position as surprisingly strong.  Yes, it was a crisis, but it was not insurmountable.  For starters, there was just the one incident, and though it was tragic and involved a consumer of unfortunate age, the two of them had seen much worse.  They also complimented the overall food safety protocols and training guidelines, calling them “abundantly clear regarding internal temperature and fully in accordance with FDA requirements” and arguing that this made the response both relatively straightforward and almost certain to succeed. 

Their recommendations were as follows: “Find an attractive employee. It should be a woman, and she should pretty in a motherly way, by which we mean in possession of a visual appeal that isn’t overtly sexual. Mid-30s to early-40s. Has an ability to speak with or affect compassion and is comfortable in front of cameras. Capable of memorizing paragraphs of moderate length and then delivering them with fluidity. If you cannot find her among the current ranks, we can supply a desirable stand-in, though in the case of questions (interactive press conferences are preferable, as they convey a sense of openness and courage) an internal option (who may have to be promised promotion, though it should be backdated or delayed so as not to appear either reactionary or quid pro quo) is best as it is more likely to produce an authentic response. She should express sympathy but not regret. Invoke the word ‘tragedy’ but frame events as unavoidable. The product of a single, former employee who has been terminated but whose plight and general state of mind she finds must be painful to even imagine. Call it a ‘regrettable lapse of concentration by a former employee working a part-time job, a former employee who is, of course, ultimately responsible but under circumstances that could have befallen any one of us.’ At some point, it may become necessary to produce said (former) employee for public consumption. For apology and potentially cathartic excoriation. If he’s reluctant, compensation may have to be authorized.  In the event that he is angry, bitter, psychologically unstable, or otherwise unappealing, a substitute can (again) be arranged, though it will involve two financial disbursements (as well as the express, affirmative permission of the original (former) employee) instead of one. We do recommend any potential substitute be white and male, ideally with blue eyes and a generally “American” appearance. Acting experience a plus, New York scene preferred in order to minimize the possibility of (present and future) recognition. Should it become necessary, it is our view that implementing this part of the recommended strategy will require the most caution, fraught as it is with the potential for loose ends and subsequent media backlash.  For example, imagine an enterprising reporter from the World-Herald. He senses something off about your response or is perhaps simply engaging in conspiratorial wishful thinking.  He goes to Ogallala and starts asking questions. At the diner on Main St., he hears a Vietnam vet talking about the ‘kid that cooked the deadly hamburger’ and finds some 19-year-old named Arnie who lives with his parents and has become too depressed to get out of bed. The kitchen is freshly remodeled, and there’s a brand-new Ford Mustang in the garage, except the kid doesn’t drive it anymore because it’s January by now and everything’s covered in a thin layer of ice and the thing has rear-wheel drive. Not to mention, every time he climbed inside he thought about that kid and his family and blasted the radio and gassed up to 105 and considered swerving into the South Platte. Stay with us now. The parents are dying to talk, and they let loose with everything. The orchestration, the pay-off, the swap we managed to pull off, and five months from now you’re looking at a second crisis, and this time the threat will be existential.  In our experience, they’ll swallow the act.  It’s the perceived lie they won’t live with, and care must be taken. If he’s any good, the reporter will ask them about taking the money, and maybe you’ll be able to hammer them there, or maybe they just offer to give it back. There’s no downside for them. The offer itself is sufficient for their credibility, and if you do indeed take it then you’re only admitting the whole charade and accepting everything that goes with such an admission, which is, basically, see ‘existential threat’ above. Meaning ironclad NDAs will be necessary.  Protection against personal lawsuits directed at this (former) employee (who will, to reiterate, be the subtle locus of blame in such a way as to (in all likelihood) provide ample legal ammunition) filed on behalf of the bereaved. Dispatching friendly attorneys to the victim’s family, attorneys inclined to preach the Gospel of Settlement, has worked wonders in previous cases. It’s a path we endorse. Pay for dead ends now rather than becoming roadkill later. In public, this employee will be a sympathetic scapegoat, but in private he will be under your protection, and we urge you to save your frugality for something else. An ad campaign, perhaps, which will be the next logical step. Our research suggests something low-fi. Something emphasizing individual responsibility. The unavoidability of danger and its corresponding allure. Strange as it sounds, you should play up the crisis, and we recommend a series of commercials featuring a lone hero. He is an archetype, a cowboy, and he goes into your restaurant over the objections of his friends. ‘It’s too dangerous’ they say, but he is impervious, rugged and confident. We’ve tested various taglines, and the one that really moves dials is ‘Try to Control Yourself.’ Our assessment is they won’t be able to. Our assessment is you’ll come out even stronger. Indeed, there is opportunity in tragedy, and you should never fail to capitalize on a chance to rebrand. In this case, your brand will be trusting of the people. It will be accepting of their scorn and unquestionably subject to their will.”         

BRETT BIEBEL is the author of 48 Blitz, a collection of short stories set in Nebraska and scheduled to be published by Split/Lip Press in December 2020. He teaches writing and literature at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Chautauqua, the minnesota review, The Masters Review, Emrys Journal, and elsewhere.