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.

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  1. 3612 says:

    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?

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  2. Andy_Martini says:

    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.

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  3. nanoking says:

    “Freedom of choice is what you want. Freedom from choice is what you got.”

    Onward into the bowels of devolution, the chicken goes.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  5. 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.

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    • J.R.RMorphene says:

      Any decent large company or PLC, would have handled a customer services mishap like that with at least a shred more dignity than said small restaurant, and would most-likely have handled the situation in such a way as reflected half decently upon the company. Giving our friend Mr. Dubner here a much harder task if he should like rant at them.

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  6. Shopping says:

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

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  7. sauceruney says:

    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 grayson
    My 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

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  8. A Blogger says:

    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*)

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