By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
On April 9, a routine inspection of Swami’s Café on La Mesa Boulevard by the County Health Department led to a brief shutdown of the restaurant after the inspector discovered two cockroaches near the back door.
Swami’s responded the way restaurants should — closing the doors and conducting an all-night deep clean while looking for further signs of cockroaches. The following morning, they requested another inspection.
An inspector came in at 7 a.m. — at a cost of $800 for a rush follow-up inspection. He was there for an hour doing a more thorough investigation, searching for more cockroaches — scraping walls, using mirrors, etc. The Swami’s staff were certain of passing because in their overnight cleaning they never found any additional cockroaches. Swami’s also has a regular pest control service that visits once or twice a month and a cleaning service that works for six hours every morning before opening.
“If it would have been a large infestation, we wouldn’t have been able to open the next day because this guy is doing a very, very thorough search,” said Swami’s operations manager Hulises Contreras. “If there was something here, he was looking to catch it. He was real aggressive.”
With no signs of an infestation, Swami’s re-opened for business on April 10. However, a different kind of infestation had already begun to infect the local eatery — viral social media stories, some with skewed facts, that spread into evening news.
“We get a lot of foot traffic on La Mesa Boulevard so somebody sees the poster, takes a picture posts it on Yelp, posts to social media, they tell some friends and it spreads like wildfire from there,” Contreras said, adding that cable news outlets began reaching out for a statement from him around 6 p.m. on the day of the initial inspection and a camera man set up outside Swami’s 10 minutes later and said the story will be on the 11 o’clock news. NBC also posted a story on Facebook around 10 p.m. that had more comments and shares than stories about national headlines.
“A story about Kim Kardashian, a story about Nipsy Hustle, a story about Trump and each one has about 15 to 20 comments — Swami’s Café La Mesa closed due to vermin infestation? 500 comments, 600 shares. And so they see that and go let’s see how we can cover this even more.
“We didn’t expect to be spread all over the news,” Contreras continued. “I was in Point Loma and listening to Rock 105.3 and they even brought it up there.”
The comments on the social media platforms also caused rumors to spread. One rumor that was shared said the restaurant was infested with rats. Contreras saw the rumors online but was reticent to quell them.
“We weren’t ready to make a statement just because is anything better between a cockroach and a rat? Either way, none of it should be in our restaurant,” he said.
Like many viral stories, the Swami’s closure story became a genie that was tough to put back in the bottle.
“I called NBC News to tell them we opened the next morning already with a 95% inspection rating and can you please change your headline because the headline was ‘Swami’s Café La Mesa closed due to vermin infestation,’” Contreras said, adding the news only changed the headline to “open after vermin infestation.”
“Business has dwindled a little bit,” Contreras said of the aftermath. “We lost a little confidence with the locals. Still, a lot of the regulars are coming back, a lot of loyal supporters are coming. We just explain to them, ‘Yeah we made a mistake, but we’re going to continue to improve and continue to follow proper procedures.’”
Swami’s has operated in San Diego County for over 20 years. There are now 11 Swami’s Café restaurants and three bistro restaurants, including La Mesa Bistro and Bakery. This was the first time any Swami’s restaurants have ever been closed by the Health Department.
“We’re sorry that it happened, but we’re going to continue to come out with new menu items and offer the same great service we’ve been giving to the community of La Mesa,” Contreras said. “We’ve been a part of this community close to 10 years now and plan on staying forever, it’s a great community.”
— Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.