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Florida’s restaurants fight lingering perceptions from BP oil spill

This post is by SmartBlog on Restaurants and Restaurant SmartBrief contributor Janet Forgrieve.

The massive oil spill that resulted after a BP well in the Gulf of Mexico exploded didn’t have to dump tons of crude and tar balls on Florida beaches to create a perception that it might be best to avoid the Sunshine State’s west coast beaches, restaurants and hotels this summer. Now it’s up to one man to determine how badly restaurants and other tourist-related businesses far from the spill’s direct path were hurt by the event.

Ken Feinberg, the administrator of the $20 billion compensation fund dubbed the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, told the state’s restaurant operators at a conference this week that, while he was skeptical about the impact of the disaster on eateries so far away from the spill, he was growing more flexible about considering claims that restaurants may have been financially damaged by a spill-related slowdown in tourism. Feinberg’s message came after a meeting with state officials that left the state’s attorney general “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects of recovering additional funds from BP to help Florida’s hospitality industry recover. In addition to paying $40.5 million from the fund on 5,590 of the 19,235 claims submitted by Florida businesses since Aug. 23, BP has sent $25 million to tourism offices statewide and an additional $7 million to the five Panhandle counties where oil and tar washed ashore earlier this year, all to help the hospitality industry fight the image of damaged beaches and bring the tourists back.

The fund Feinberg administers was set up largely to prevent a torrent of civil lawsuits by companies that believe they were hurt by the spill, and part of his motivation comes from the desire to avoid clogging the courts with a slew of lawsuits. In August, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association announced it had partnered with three national law firms willing to represent restaurants and hospitality companies fighting for survival.

“I talked to some owners on Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach and they are 30 days from having the electricity and the phone cut off,” Santa Rosa County Commission Chairman Gordon Goodin told the Pensacola News Journal. “Once that happens, you’re done. People call and they don’t get an answer and they don’t call back.”

Meanwhile, Florida officials aren’t waiting for the fund to respond. On Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Crist said the state will use $700,000 in surplus restaurant and lodging fees to create an ad campaign aimed at correcting the misperceptions. Dubbed “Back to the Beach – Fall Back Into Summer,” the campaign will aim to attract consumers who may have canceled trips to northwest Florida, talking up upcoming fishing tournaments and seafood festivals among the state’s fall attractions.

Has your restaurant been impacted by the oil spill, or lived through other events that created misperceptions that kept customers away? Tell us about it.