A nice guy. Probably too nice.
So went my initial impression of Firefly restaurant owner John Simmons two weeks after the April 26 closing of his Paradise Road restaurant –– the Southern Nevada Health District shut it down –– because of a food poisoning outbreak that’s now sickened 300.
It was afternoon when we met at his Firefly location on West Sahara. That morning the health district doubled the number of people who reported salmonella poisoning after eating tapas at his near-Strip location.
Contrite? You bet. There was no mistaking that Simmons, 45, regretted the gastrointestinal illness his business caused patrons. He wanted people to leave their cares behind when they visited his three Firefly outlets, not create problems for them.
“I don’t want anybody hurt,” he groaned.
The restaurant’s closing not only affected customers, he pointed out, but also affected those who worked for him.
“I have employees that need jobs,” he said.
What didn’t come across was the sense that heads were going to roll, that he was angry that some employees him let him down.
He seemed mystified such a situation could have arisen, as though it developed out of thin air.
“I wish I knew the cause,” he said, stressing he’d retrain employees and that he was hiring a respected consultant to keep such a mysterious problem from materializing again.
Well, when his Paradise eatery was closed –– authorities also shut it down in 2011 –– health district inspectors gave him a list of 44 reasons why his place was unsafe, including: several food items measured at unsafe temperatures; faulty storage equipment; employees handling ready-to-eat foods with bare hands; a sanitizer bucket stored next to open food; insects prevalent in the kitchen; substances stored in a way that allowed liquid to drip into open containers of food.
“I just don’t know how this (food poisoning) could have happened,” he told me. “We have good employees.”
Yes, Simmons, a former executive chef, may well have been too nice a guy to preach to staff to do things the right way –– or get out. And if he hired managers in his own likeness, as owners often do, you couldn’t expect more adherence to food safety.
Unfortunately, that laissez-faire leadership style can lead to situations like that now endured by Lyudmyla Rachenko, the Las Vegas businesswoman whose pregnancy is threatened by the food poisoning she contracted after eating at Firefly. Fearful of taking antibiotics that could hurt her unborn child, she remains ill and soon has to undergo a C-section to save her first born from harm.
Justin Micatrotto, an executive with the Micatrotto Restaurant Group and a former chairman of the Nevada Restaurant Association’s board of directors, told me recently that restaurant owners have to truly understand their responsibility to the public, that the issue of public safety has to be instilled in each employee “early and often.”
Restaurateurs, he emphasized, must let employees know that “if you’re going to be in my house, you play by these rules.”
What rules Firefly employees follow isn’t clear from what you see on national TV.
In 2012 Simmons had Willie Degel, a New York steakhouse owner and host of a Food Network problem-solving show, “Restaurant Stakeout,” at his Sahara location. Using hidden cameras, Degel found many difficulties with service, including a server eating a piece of a patron’s food. In a review of the show for Gather.com, a website read by millions, Diane Zoller-Ciatto noted: “John (Simmons) is just too nice and now his business is suffering.”
If Degel taught food safety lessons to Sahara Firefly staff, they didn’t take. After authorities cited the Paradise location with 44 demerits –– epidemiologists recently found salmonella there in cooked sausage –– the Sahara eatery also received 30 demerits, so it was far from a pristine operation.
The good news, if you want to call it that, is that “Restaurant Stakeout” was often fabricated, according to Firefly executive Dave Bowers, “with scenes made up.” A Food Network spokeswoman didn’t respond to inquiries about the assertion of Bowers, who said he was the only Firefly employee who didn’t sign a confidentiality agreement forbidding disclosure of what happened during filming. Bowers said it was quickly evident the show wouldn’t be as positive as promised.
So why continue to allow filming of a fraudulently promoted program that made the restaurant look bad to millions?
“That’s a great question,” Bowers said, adding that there probably was a belief that final edits would make the show more positive.
Or could it be that when John Simmons saw the TV crew hard at work he was just too nice a guy to tell them to get lost?
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@ reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.