Whole Foods and Yellow Fever: How’d this one get through?

Erik Bernstein Crisis Prevention Leave a Comment

Failure to avoid predictable problems results in backlash

Before it became the in-store restaurant for a new Whole Foods store in Long Beach, CA Yellow Fever was operating in two different SoCal locations. Co-founded by a Korean-American chef,  it was an independent operation which took the risk of a controversial name on its own shoulders. With that said, when I saw Whole Foods had decided to partner up and keep the name, I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it. After all, we’re now talking a a massive corporation with what one would hope are well-established PR protocols. That means layer upon layer of employee saw this, from local management to the executive offices, and somehow nobody was concerned about the implications of using what’s widely known to be a demeaning term. What a mess.

The question from a crisis management standpoint is, “why take the risk?”. Whole Foods doesn’t need the extra publicity, and if you told me nobody from the top down realized this name was offensive I wouldn’t believe it. It’s exactly the kind of issue a company that’s had to use surveillance video footage to defend itself from allegations of discrimination should know to avoid entirely. And, of course, it quickly drew the type of outrage you’d expect:

This situation falls firmly into the category of avoidable risk, and if I were advising Whole Foods I would be recommending a full review of the chain of decisions leading up to the problem. The preference is always to avoid damage, but if you do run smack into trouble you need to at least fix whatever allowed it to happen so you don’t repeat mistakes.

Erik Bernstein

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