Why Pay $36.09 for Rancid Chicken?

In light of our anonymous poster’s Starbucks story (see “A $2 Cup of Coffee”), here’s my own tale of food and economics:

An old friend came to town not long ago and we met for a late lunch on the Upper West Side. Trilby ordered a burger, no bread, with brie; I ordered half a roasted chicken with mashed potatoes. The food was slow in coming but we had so much catching-up to do that we didn’t care.

My chicken, when it arrived, didn’t look good but I took a bite. It was so rancid I had to spit it out into a napkin. Absolutely disgusting gagging rotten rancid. I summoned the waitress, a young and pretty redhead, who made a suitably horrified expression, then took the food away and brought back a menu.

The manager appeared. She was older than the waitress, with long dark hair and a French accent. She apologized, said the chefs were checking out the dish now, trying to determine if perhaps the herbs or the butter had caused the problem.

I don’t think so, I told her. I think your chicken is rotten. I cook a lot of chicken, I said, and I know what rotten chicken smells like. Trilby agreed: you could smell this plate across the table, probably across the restaurant.

The manager was reluctant to concede. They had just gotten the shipment of chicken that morning, she said, which struck me as relevant as saying that No, so-and-so couldn’t have committed a murder today because he didn’t commit one yesterday.

The manager left and, five minutes later, returned. You’re right! she said. The chicken was bad. The chefs had checked the chicken, found it rotten, and were throwing it away. Victory! But for whom? The manager apologized again, asked if I’d like a free dessert or drink. Well, I said, first of all let me try to find some food on your menu that doesn’t seem disgusting after that chicken. I ordered a carrot-ginger-orange soup, some French fries, and sauteed spinach.

Trilby and I then ate, fairly happily, though the taste of the rancid chicken remained with me; in fact, it remains with me still. Trilby had had a glass of wine before we ordered, and took another with her meal, sauvignon blanc. I drank water. When the waitress cleared our plates, she asked again if we wanted complimentary dessert. No, we said, just coffee.

As Trilby and I talked, I mentioned that I had not long ago interviewed Richard Thaler, the godfather of Behavioral Economics, which seeks to marry psychology and economics. Thaler and I had considered some small experiments at lunch — offering the waiter a gigantic tip, perhaps, in exchange for special considerations — but we didn’t get around to it. Trilby was interested, so we kept talking about money. I mentioned the behavioralists’ concept of “anchoring” (which used-car salesmen in particular know so well): establish a price that may be 100% more than what you need in order to ensure that you’ll still walk away with, say, a 50% profit.

Talk turned to what we might say when our check came. There seemed two good options: “We don’t care for any free dessert, thanks, but considering what happened with the chicken, we’d like you to comp our entire meal.” That would establish an anchor at 0% of the check. Or this option: “We don’t care for any free dessert, thanks, but considering what happened with the chicken, would you please ask the manager what you can do about the check.” That would establish an anchor at 100% of the check.

Just then the waitress brought the check. It was for $31.09. Perhaps out of shyness, or haste, or — most likely — a desire to not appear cheap (when it comes to money, things are never simple), I blurted out Option 2: Please see what the manager “can do about the check.” The waitress replied, smiling, that we had already been given the two glasses of wine for free. To me in particular this felt like slim recompense, since it was Trilby who had drunk the wine while it was I who still radiated with the flavor of rancid chicken. But the waitress, still smiling, duly took the check and headed toward the manager. She zipped right over, also smiling.

“Considering what happened with the chicken,” I said, “I wonder what you can do about the check.”

“We didn’t charge you for the wines,” she said, with great kindness, as if she were a surgeon who had thought she would have to remove both my kidneys but found instead that she had only had to remove one.

“Is that the best that you’re prepared to offer me?” I said (still unable to establish an anchor at 0%).

She looked at me intently, still friendly. Here she was making a calculation, preparing to make the sort of slight gamble that is both financial and psychological, the sort of gamble that each of us makes every day. She was about to gamble that I was not the kind of person who would make a scene. After all, I had been friendly throughout our dilemma, never raising my voice or even uttering the words “vomit” or “rancid” aloud. And she plainly thought this behavior would continue. She was gambling that I wouldn’t throw back my chair and holler, that I wouldn’t stand outside the restaurant telling prospective customers that I’d gagged on my chicken, that the whole lot was rancid, that the chefs either must have smelled it and thought they could get away with it, or, if they hadn’t smelled it, were so detached from their job that who knows what else — a spoon, a sliver of thumb, a dollop of disinfectant — might find its way into the next meal. And so, making this gamble, she said “Yes”: as in Yes, that is the best that she was prepared to offer me. “All right,” I said, and she walked away. I left a $5 tip — no sense penalizing the poor waitress, right? — walked outside and put Trilby in a cab. The manager had gambled that I wouldn’t cause trouble, and she was right.

Until now.

The restaurant, should you care to note, is called French Roast, and is on the northeast corner of 85th and Broadway, in Manhattan.

Last I checked, the roast chicken was still on the menu. Bon appetit.


Journalists (bloggers too) eating at a restaurant can be mild and seemingly meek in the face of gustatory outrage. They know the concealed weapon they carry in their pocket, a pen sharpened by a rapier wit. As blogs proliferate, will waitstaff become more adept at spotting bloggers? Do bloggers sport some identifying behavior that they're not aware of?


Good for you! You should send this to the manager, along with any stats you can provide about your readership. You should also copy the owner (along with the whole story) to give the manager the same nauseating feeling you experienced when you received your chicken.It's funny that we keep touting America as a service economy, and yet we provide some of the WORST service!I had a bad experience at a restaurant, and uponn calling their corporate offices, I was told the manager wanted to apologize personally. I reluctantly agreed to call the manager because I was done with the matter. But upon corporates insistance, I did. I GOT CHEWED OUT BY THE MANAGER!!!! She went off on me about not understanding what it was like trying to find good help, etc, instead of taking any responsibility for the matter.It was then that I realized that the employee I had received bad service from was not to blame. It was the manager who couldn't communicate what defined good service. She should have fired herself. I have never eaten at that restaurant or any of the other in that restaurant's chain. It was Burger King.My point is that the owner should be aware that he/she is ultimately to blame for not communicating what is effective customer service and not the manager since she was probably only reflecting the owner's attitudes.Maybe if everyone reads your column and tells someone they know, the ultimate penalty will be exacted on the owner, and they will go bankrupt...all over an incident that could have been corrected with a service-oriented vision, and training program.



"Freedom of choice is what you want. Freedom from choice is what you got." Onward into the bowels of devolution, the chicken goes.


How generous of you not to "penalize" the poor server -- you didn't even leave her 15%.

Dorian Grayson

What I find most interesting here is that you named the establishment on the internet. This is a small restaurant, so you probably did so with impunity. If the company were, say, Bank of America, or General Motors, then I think you would be hearing from their lawyers, and that you would be forced to delete your post. I have far more problems with the unchecked rise in corporate power and the blatant exercise of same then I do with small-scale market haggling--a phenomenon as old as history itself.


Keep up the good work. I absolutely love the book. I jut found the blog and I'm happy I did.


I heard you on NPR a few days ago and just happened to run across this weblog by seeing "freakonomics" linked off the side of the Blogger homepage when I was there to make a post.re: dorian graysonMy friend Jody had a banking experience he'd "blogged" via a Flash presentation a few years back. To my knowledge, nobody's contacted him to take it down.http://www.xdude.com/thedough.htm

A Blogger

Why can't my blog get stuck on Blogspots 'Blogs of note?'Sam, from Half an Identity - still searching for the other half...Sam, (*in a foul mood, just like the chicken*)


Thanks for this very insightful and funny story. My son just graduated with a BA in economics. I hope he keeps his sense of humor about this subject as well as you have.


At first I thought Levitt wrote this but the interview with Thaler and the descriptive elements in the story made me change my mind. Still, Dubner writes about economics really well!! (Doh)


As an ex-restaurant manager, I would say you should have simply refused to pay the bill. No matter how indignant the manager might have become, she would hardly call the police. And, as the husband of an ex female Chief of Police, I can tell you any cop showing up would have told her to take a hike. As to the comment about you publishing the name of the restaurant, the anon. commentator better read up on his law.


To the person who said Dubner didn't even leave a 15% tip: please go back to grade school.


Hahha, bastard!I think you should of framed it better though, there's a great story in the Scott Plous book, "the psychology of judgement and decision making" that covers this.Basically, in the eighties they asked two groups of 100 Americans two questions each:Group 1-Q: Do you believe that there's a greater than 90% chance of the US having nuclear war with the USSR?A: NoQ: What chance do you believe there is of US engaging in nuclear war with the USSR?A: 70%Group 1-Q: Do you believe that there's a greater than 10% chance of the US having nuclear war with the USSR?A: YesQ: What chance do you believe there is of US engaging in nuclear war with the USSR?A: 30%The figures are from memory, and probably off, but you get the idea, I would love to see what would have happened had you'd gone with the anchor at 0%, I don't think her calculation was necessarily based on you creating a scene, but probably more due to you being an easy mark.P.S. she probably spat in your coffee...!



My all time favorite restaurant manager quote (after my dining companion complained that the rare burger she ordered was a brown-through-the-middle hockey puck) "We can't keep bringing out burgers until you happen to get one you like."


I'm going to buy your book for my hubby sounds pretty neat.


The question that stood out in my mind was, "If you can so concretely identify rotten chicken by smell, why did you take a bite?" I'm surprised the waitress didn't ask that (guess she figures the customer is always right).


Great story but I disagree with the outcome.Why not stand up to the restaurant in person rather than doing it behind their back? If we have a complaint or a problem with an institution we need to confront them. Did you see the owner or talk with the chef? Often it is the chef who wields the sword in many good establishments and sets the tenor of the restaurant.I would agree with your telling us via blog about poor service if you had exhausted all avenues of your grievance. You didn't.Having just disagreed with your behaviour in this arena I want to congratulate you on an interesting blog and successful book. It is on my list to read by the end of the summer.

Tennessee Reid

Andy_Martini said...BURGER KING!!!!

Chip Constant

You always get penalized for being nice. Next time, when crap like that happens to me, I want to do a George Costanza "opposite day" and go ballistic.


Home-cooked meals are still the best, my boy.Why go through all that trouble when you can save money and make your own chicken? Back in the old days, we bred and catch our chickens.