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How social media devastated two local restaurants

Facebook posts cost Great Wall, Mike’s Italian Grill thousands, cause one to close

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Mike's Italian Grill

THE END OF AN ERA — The marquee in front of Mike’s Italian Grill that once displayed colorful and humorous images remains dark since the business closed last month.

It may only take seconds to click post, but in the internet age, social media posts can almost instantly devastate restaurants that have existed for decades in the community.

That’s what two business owners have learned in recent months, falling victim to social media posts that cost them thousands of dollars in lost profit. One restaurant, Great Wall, is in the midst of informal legal negotiations that may or may not result in a civil suit after one Facebook user falsely claimed maggots were in the establishment’s napkin dispensers.

The other, Mike’s Italian Grill, never recovered after a Facebook post went viral purporting to show the owner, Mike O’Connor, preparing food shirtless. O’Connor, however, claimed the picture was of him cleaning his ovens, not cooking food. Regardless, the restaurant that had been in Kokomo for 39 years closed in February after it couldn’t recover from the impact of the viral post.

“I think that when things get spread that quickly, we have a responsibility to our community, to the audience whom we’re speaking, to make sure what we’re saying is accurate and lawful and not careless, reckless, or malicious,” said attorney Erik May, who represents Great Wall owner Rita Lin.

On March 6, Dottie Stewart published a photo on Facebook that she claimed showed maggots in Great Wall’s napkin dispensers. However, according to May, what Stewart believed were maggots were actually shreds of napkin that gathered at the bottom of the dispenser.

But Stewart’s post went viral, and May claimed it was shared more than 500 times.

Great Wall

IMPACT — Great Wall Buffet rapidly lost sales after one social media post went viral.

The impact on the restaurant was nearly immediate, said May. The day after Stewart made her post, a large catering order for Great Wall was canceled. That was several hundred dollars lost, and Lin’s attorney said in one week’s time Great Wall lost approximately $10,000 in profit.

“I think in that respect you can certainly trace it to the post,” said May. “They’ll have a lot of credibility when they say, “This is what we were used to making at this time, and this is in fact what we made last week. And these were our losses moving forward.’”

The Lins acted quickly after the post went viral. On March 8, a cease and desist letter was sent to Stewart requesting that she take down the post. In the letter, May wrote, “For your information, what you stated were maggots in the napkin dispensers were, in fact, shreds of the brown and white napkins my client uses. Be advised that several of these napkin dispensers have been preserved to disprove your statements.

“Furthermore, the Howard County Health Department has since cleared Great Wall of any wrongdoing. Upon plain examination of the napkin dispensers, it is obvious that your statements were malicious and made with the very intention of damaging my client’s reputation.”

Shortly after sending out the cease and desist letter, May said Stewart deleted her Facebook profile. She also responded to the cease and desist letter on March 12, apologizing for her post.

“I understand that making the post on Facebook was not the right thing to do, and I’m sorry,” wrote Stewart. “I would ask that you forgive me. It was never my intention to cause any distress. Looking back, however, I can clearly see that I didn’t think things through before I made my Facebook post.”

But now negotiations are ongoing between May and Stewart’s attorney. A civil suit may be launched by the Lins, but in the meantime they seek to clear their name.

“I want people to realize this is a good business,” said May. “My clients don’t want to sue anybody necessarily; they just want their business and reputation restored to what it was before this malicious post was made. That’s ultimately what they want. If we could go back in time before this all happened, I think everybody would want that, but we can’t.”

On the other hand, O’Connor never could clear his name in public before his business succumbed to a viral media post.

When a post including a picture of a shirtless O’Connor working in the kitchen of his restaurant went viral last December, O’Connor said the impact was immediate as well.

O’Connor had operated Mike’s Italian Grill in Kokomo for 39 years, but even such a long-standing restaurant’s reputation couldn’t survive what was being spread online. Social media users said O’Connor was cooking food shirtless during business hours, but he maintained that was impossible. He said the photo showed him working on cleaning ovens, which had to be off to be cleaned.

When the business opened at 11 a.m., said O’Connor, the ovens were 505 degrees for the rest of the day, making them impossible to clean until the next day.

“I knew I was going to lose the business as soon as that happened,” said O’Connor. “In the restaurant business, food is a very personal item to everybody. Anything you put in your mouth, you want to make sure it was handled right. The picture they painted was just the opposite of that. Even though people knew me and didn’t believe it, it’s in the back of their minds, and instead of going for pizza tonight, ‘Let’s go get chicken.’ People didn’t mean it. The community didn’t mean to shun me like that, but it happened.”

That December, O’Connor said he lost $33,000 in sales. Things didn’t improve much in January, with Mike’s Italian Grill losing $32,000 that month.

O’Connor made the decision to close Mike’s Italian Grill in February. He explored options about potentially recouping losses, such as through insurance, but he said business interruption insurance wouldn’t cover such losses.

He’s exploring a civil suit, but O’Connor said he’s unlikely to recover what he’s lost from those who made the original post. Since closing, O’Connor said he’s been working to renovate his restaurant in the hope of selling it to a new owner. But, he noted, his situation should show people that what they post online can have real-world implications.

“This can happen to anyone,” said O’Connor. “Restaurants are very, very vulnerable because food is very personal to us all. There is no real criminal penalty for doing this.”

May echoed such sentiments on behalf of his client as well, calling on social media users to use caution before spreading information or posting.

“I think when we created these defamation, slander, libel laws in this country, I don’t think anybody would have anticipated the world we live in now where communication is done with such urgency and immediacy,” said May. “That shouldn’t affect or minimize the impact of those laws. Everybody needs to be responsible for what they communicate or what they publish.”