What to Do After a Dining Disaster?

Here’s the scene: a woman on New York’s Upper West Side walks into Le Pain Quotidien, a high-end café chain. She sits down, orders a salad. The salad arrives. The contents: a) leafy greens and b) an entire dead mouse. Two nearby customers, one of whom happened to be Stephen Dubner, saw the scene unfold.

It got us thinking: in restaurants and in life, bad things happen. But what happens next is perhaps more important. So what does a restaurant do to recover from an incident like that?

This week on Marketplace, Dubner talks to Kai Ryssdal about the mouse in the salad incident. Along the way, Dubner interviews Andrew Gowers, who worked in corporate communications at Lehman Brothers during its collapse and then for BP during the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Gowers says one of the keys to surviving a business disaster is transparency.

GOWERS: If there’s any suggestion that you are behind the curve in terms of withholding information, or worse still disguising or gilding information, then you are on a heading to a very difficult place.

Dubner also talks the incident over with his dining companion on that fateful day, the investor and financial writer James Altucher. And he speaks with Le Pain Quotidien CEO Vincent Herbert, who explains the company’s response and the effect the incident had on the company’s organic-food philosophy.

Here’s where to find Marketplace near you.

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  1. Eric M. Jones. says:

    So I get a call from an old GF. She is working at a job where she times lines for actors to get the totals needed for production. (There are a lot of weird jobs in Hollywood). She works for a Well Known daytime soap opera. The matriarch of this soap-clan is uber-famous and takes everyone out for her birthday. She can afford it. My x-GF needs a date.

    So I go. What’s the worst that could happen? Besides, I might get lucky.

    So we go to the Sir Winston Churchill restaurant (aboard the Queen Mary). My x-GF and I are escorted to a beautiful table with polished brass everywhere. The evening proceeds. My x-GF is really putting away the scotch. But I’m the driver, so it’s okay. More scotch. Then Champagne, then toasts and more scotch. She is really slurring her words now. But I’ve seen her drunk before.

    Suddenly she leaps up and projectile vomits over everyone and everything. Over all the good-looking soap stars and the matriarch, over all the fine polish brass and linen tablecloths, over all the fancy h’ordeurves and plates of food.

    Everyone is mortified. I gently escort her to the ladies room. In two secondss second the table is surrounded by a dozen staff who quickly whip off the table cloth and repair the dinner setting.

    “Must be a touch of the flu…or something.” I say to console her driving homeward.

    But my God, the look on the faces of the dinner guest were priceless.

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  2. j. anderson says:

    I listened to this on Marketplace and the dead mouse in the salad had NOTHING to do with organic produce and everything to do with the restaurant did NOT wash the greens after receiving them from the farm/producer. Don’t you wash the lettice before eating it…shame on the restaurant for not washing or even inspecting the salad. This lack of washing or salad inspection is way too common in restaurants of all price ranges and likely accounts for many digestive issues….

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  3. jimmsans says:

    I have worked fine dining for years. Sometimes you do your best effort to wash the lettuce and things just get by you without notice. I have never served anything as big as a mouse, but numerous crickets and grasshoppers have made it to the table. It’s very disturbing to everyone including the servers who count on tips for the majority of their wage.
    Bottom line people think a restaurant prepares food like they do at home. This is just not the case… …unless you regularly serve 300 people and more every night. Could you imagine prepping individual salads for 300 people?

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  4. David says:

    Interesting story, Dubner, but I think that you could have done more with the “get out ahead of the news” angle in the same way that Tylenol did with its poisoning scare in the early 1980s. I think that the CEO of the Le Pain Quotidien did not do what he should have in terms of making “lemons out of lemonade.” As you correctly pointed out, this really wasn’t a story about staying organic, but it was how to change a corporate culture that didn’t value the maxim “the customer is always right.” You shouldn’t have had to “anchor” the manager’s offer to you in a low ball fashion, but instead all of the patrons that day should have gotten “comped” and invited back with discount coupons.

    A similar story in my own life of a manager who got it right — a month or two ago I was swimming at the local YMCA when the ventilation system broke causing the air in the pool area to become very unhealthy (highly chlorinated and humid). The executive director of the facility was forced to close the pool and get the ventilation system fixed. He came to all the patrons in the pool (and whirlpool and sauna) and apologized profusely for the inconvenience and offered free guest passes to everyone. Although I didn’t take the guest pass, my feeling about the place was better, and I felt that he really stepped up in my eyes.

    As for the lady with the mouse in her salad, I am not sure why she came back to the restaurant with little fanfare. While I don’t think that she should have “ransomed” the place for free meals, etc., I am not sure I would have been so eager to return.

    Keep up the good work!! Love the books and the podcast.

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  5. Bobby Calise says:

    Really enjoyed the “Dead Mouse” podcast. It actually inspired me to share my own similar story on my blog: http://bobbycalise.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/freakonomics-a-dead-mouse-hazelnut-gelato/

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  6. Philippe says:

    Check out this woman in Townsville who found a living mouse in her loaf of bread. The bakery didnt want to take responsibility, stating that “once the break leave the bakery, we lose the responsibility”. So much for taking ownership of your product, and making sure your regular customers are happy. Incredible.

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  7. Philippe says:

    Weird after hearing the podcast, was listening to the radio on my way home and heard of this similar story. Check out this woman in Townsville who found a living mouse in her loaf of bread. The bakery didnt want to take responsibility, stating that “once the break leave the bakery, we lose the responsibility”. So much for taking ownership of your product, and making sure your regular customers are happy. Incredible.

    http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/8281304/live-mouse-found-in-bag-of-bread

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  8. Matt says:

    Off topic, but what was the music used in the background? I’m certain it was Kronos Quartet playing. I swear I know the work, probably own the recording, but can’t put my finger on it.

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    • Mike says:

      If anyone can answer Matt’s question I will be eternally grateful.

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      • Matt says:

        Well, I was right that I owned the recording, but wrong that it was Kronos. The piece they used is “Fratres” by Arvo Pärt. You can find it on the Tabula Rasa album.

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