It's a modern-day horn of plenty. Everything about the upscale Toronto grocery store Pusateri's speaks of excess: shelves groaning with olive oils and balsamic vinegars, delectable artisanal breads and delicate pastries, succulent meats gleaming in display cases like jewels and, out in the overstuffed parking lot, a weekend samba of Audis and Range Rovers jostling for space. But last October, following a complaint from a member of the public, local health inspectors found something extra at Pusateri's Avenue Road flagship location: rodent droppings and live, scurrying cockroaches. The store was shut for three tense days, as more than 100 staff scoured the place. Meanwhile, grossed-out bloggers and critics mused about the store's future.
First: Fix the problem
Within days of reopening, Pusateri's management sat down to map out its way forward. "We came to the conclusion that we could not afford to have another closure," says president Frank Luchetta. If it was shut again, "our brand wouldn't survive." So they hired Dominic Fortuna away from York Region's health protection department to be the grocery retailer's first vice-president of quality assurance and developed something called Pusateri's Gold Standard. Under the new program, the company will audit suppliers (which are sometimes the sources of insect infestations) and conduct regular in-house food safety inspections. All in-house prepared foods will now be branded with a little gold icon, the store's own version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Luchetta says the program is a multimillion-dollar investment. "Just as we were pioneers in taking the gourmet retail side to the level we've taken it to in this city, we wanted to now take the quality assurance to the same level."
Second: Reputation repair
The Pusateri's clan had always been intensely private. In 25 years of business, they had never advertised, depending instead on word of mouth among foodies. They are slowly learning how to open themselves up to scrutiny. "We never lived in that world, the social media world, the Twitter, the Facebook, the blogging, and we quickly realized how powerful that tool is," says Luchetta. Less than a week after reopening the Avenue Road store, the company launched on both Twitter and Facebook, and began learning the fine art of digital dialogue.
Meanwhile, Luchetta himself is doing old-school PR, conducting his first regular media interviews. It has been an adjustment. "Being a privately owned company, you never want to share much," he admits. "But after the incident we had, we realized we have to be completely transparent."
ADVICE FOR THE DIY CROWD
AUDIT YOUR PORFILE
Pusateri's believes it was a victim of its own success: While other establishments have been closed briefly for food safety violations, none endured the public grilling that Pusateri's got. And there's something else: "We always considered ourselves a mom-and-pop operation," says Frank Luchetta. He believes public health authorities might have been more flexible with a small operator, but they didn't have the same latitude with Pusateri's. (Inspectors know they are watched closely when they do a safety audit of a high-profile location.) All small business owners, says Luchetta, need to take a step back every so often and do an audit of their public brand to search for both their strengths and hidden vulnerabilities.
5: Food retailers shuttered by Toronto Public Health in 2011
$50 million: Approximate annual sales at Pusateri's three Toronto locations
60,000 - 70,000: Number of SKUs (stock-keeping units) at Pusateri's Avenue Road location