It’s the food, stupid.

You can brag on and on about your meals per man hour, your production efficiencies, your computerized back of the house, your balance sheet, your purchasing systems, your smart-looking servery. But if the customers don’t like your food, forget about it. You’re dead, doomed, out of luck.

Sometimes the food really is crummy. You may have inherited the situation, or have been brought in to turn it around. Bad food can be a one-time, accidental occurrence. Or it can be reliably, consistently bad. Just as often, the food is fine, and only its reputation is crummy. In either case, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

If food really is the issue, the cause may be a personnel or a presentation problem, or both. Perhaps the standards simply haven't been high enough and more intensive training and stronger quality assurance may be necessary.

Perception issues are more problematic. Even if the food improves, perceptions—and participation—may not. And while food quality issues are often readily identified, it can be a lot harder to pinpoint the source of an image problem. However negative opinions are formed, the danger is that they can have immediate and irreversible results.

Just ask any management company that has seen a contract suddenly put out for bid, or been brought in to turn an operation around. Or any self-op that found out its administration wanted the food upgraded only after a  contractor has been hired to make that happen. Or a liaison who’s been taken to task because of complaints that the quality of cafeteria food is negatively affecting employee productivity.

Think it’s a problem that “can't happen here?” It can.

Consultants say the best strategy for maintaining a top food quality reputation combines a proactive perception measurement and management program with quality improvement and quality assurance standards.

But theory is one thing, and reality is another. Here are four real-life strategies employed by onsite operators when they had to turn around a food quality perception problem.