Negative publicity relating to our restaurants or our company could adversely impact our reputation, which may significantly harm us.
We depend significantly on customers’ perception of and connection to our brand. In addition to the damage to our reputation from well-publicized food safety incidents during 2015 as described elsewhere in this report, we may experience negative publicity from time to time relating to food quality, customer complaints, restaurant facilities, advertising and other business practices, litigation alleging injuries or improper employee practices, government investigations or other regulatory issues, our suppliers’ potential failure to adhere to elements of our Food With Integrity protocols, other issues regarding the integrity of our suppliers’ food processing, employee relationships, customer or employee data breaches, or other matters, regardless of whether the allegations are valid or whether we are held to be responsible. The negative impact of adverse publicity relating to one or more restaurants or any of the foregoing topics may extend far beyond the restaurant(s) involved and affect many more, or even all, of our restaurants. The considerable expansion in the use of social media over recent years can further amplify any negative publicity that may be generated. A similar risk exists with respect to unrelated food service businesses, if consumers associate those businesses with our own operations. And even publicity that could reasonably be viewed as positive may have adverse consequences on our business. For example, positive developments in regards to the food safety issues that have impacted us might have the effect of continuing or increasing customer awareness of the issue.
The adverse impact of publicity on customers’ perception of us could have a further negative impact on our sales. If the impact of any such publicity is particularly long-lasting, the value of our brand may suffer and our ability to grow could be diminished. Additionally, negative publicity about our employment practices may affect our reputation among employees and potential employees, which could make it more difficult for us to attract and retain top performing employees. That could adversely impact the quality of the customer experience we can offer and our operations generally, and may increase our labor costs as well.
Our insurance coverage and self-insurance reserves may not cover future claims.
We maintain various insurance policies for employee health, workers’ compensation, general liability, property damage and auto liability. We are self-insured for our employee health plans but have third party insurance coverage to limit exposure for both individual and aggregate claim costs. We are also responsible for losses up to a certain limit for workers’ compensation, general liability, property damage, employment practices liability and auto liability insurance.
For policies under which we are responsible for losses, we record a liability that represents our estimated cost of claims incurred and unpaid as of the balance sheet date. Our estimated liability is not discounted and is based on a number of assumptions and factors, including historical trends, actuarial assumptions and economic conditions, and is closely monitored and adjusted when warranted by changing circumstances. Our history of claims experience is relatively short and our significant growth during most of our operating history could affect the accuracy of estimates based on historical experience. If a greater amount of claims occurs compared to what we estimated, or if medical costs increase beyond what we expected, our accrued liabilities might not be sufficient and we may be required to record additional expense. Unanticipated changes may also produce materially different amounts of expense than reported under these programs, which could adversely impact our results of operations. It is also possible that losses covered under one or more of our insurance policies may exceed the applicable policy limits, which would subject us to unexpected additional liabilities in an amount that could be significant enough to have a material adverse effect on our financial position.
We may not be able to adequately protect our intellectual property, which could harm the value of our brands and adversely affect our business.
Our ability to successfully implement our business plan depends in part on our ability to further build brand recognition using our trademarks, service marks, trade dress and other proprietary intellectual property, including our name and logos, our Food With Integrity strategy and the unique ambience of our restaurants. If our efforts to protect our intellectual property are inadequate, or if any third party misappropriates or infringes on our intellectual property, either in print or on the internet, the value of our brands may be harmed, which could have a material adverse effect on our business and might prevent our brands from achieving or maintaining market acceptance. We are aware of restaurants in foreign jurisdictions using menu items, logos and other branding that we believe are based on our intellectual property, and our ability to halt these restaurants from using these elements may be limited in jurisdictions in which we are not operating. This could have an adverse impact on our ability to successfully expand into other jurisdictions in the future. We may also encounter claims from prior users of similar intellectual property in areas where we operate or intend to conduct operations. This could harm our image, brand or competitive position and cause us to incur significant penalties and costs.