Freakonomics Radio: A Mouse in the Salad. What’s the Worst Restaurant Experience You’ve Ever Had?

I used to have a standing backgammon/lunch date with my friend James Altucher at a restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called Le Pain Quotidien. It’s part of a chain but a low-key, classy sort of chain — Belgian in origin, specializing in good bread, strong coffee, wonderful pastries, and an assortment of healthy, organic light meals: salads, tartins, etc. The restaurants have beautiful, rustic wooden tables, including a huge communal table, which is great for a backgammon lunch.

James and I had been playing at this location regularly for a year or two when something happened that caused us to leave in a hurry and not return. A woman at a table behind us began to make some distressing noise. A few people rushed over to see what was happening. Turns out she’d found a mouse in her salad. The entire corpse. James used my cell phone to take a couple of photos with it. In order to not turn your stomach without warning, I’ve published the full-sized photos separately — here’s the first one, and here’s a second, with a menu propped in the background, so we’d remember where this happened (as if we could forget!).

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast takes a thorough look at this incident. It’s called “Mouse in the Salad.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)

In the episode, I revisit the scene of the mouse and try to speak with the manager. He suggested I contact Le Pain Quotidien’s corporate office. I tried that for a while, to no avail. I kept getting promises that someone would reply but it didn’t happen.

I had a lot of questions to ask: How’d the mouse get in the salad in the first place? What did it mean that no one had noticed? What happened to the customer who got served the mouse? Bad things happen — in restaurants and in life — but to my mind, the most important thing is to figure out what happens next.

Several weeks later, I finally did get hold of someone from Le Pain Quotidien — the CEO, in fact; more on this below — but in the meantime I went looking elsewhere for insight.

I asked James, who’s a financial writer and investor, what he thought the mouse signified. He had an interesting take:

James Altucher: investor, game player, mouse-salad survivor. (Photo: Claudia Altucher)


ALTUCHER: This is a growth issue, because too many things went wrong. So, each one thing has a low probability. So a mouse gets into an open salad bag that happens to be lying around. That’s inappropriate. The mouse dies there. So, I don’t know, was it there overnight? The guy takes his hand in and puts it in a bowl and didn’t see the mouse. The waitress or waiter brings the mouse over and didn’t notice it. So, four or five things went wrong. Maybe the salad was delivered with the mouse in it to the store to begin with? So, we don’t know where it went wrong. This is a typical thing that could happen, not this exact thing, but this aspect of things breaking down, multiple things breaking down happens when you’re doing that regional-to-national surge of a business.

Richard Thaler, the anchorman. (credit: University of Chicago)

I also spoke to Richard Thaler, the dean of behavioral economics, about the price James and I wound up paying for our Pain Quotidien meal on the day of the mouse, and the concept of “anchoring.” (I’d had a bad restaurant experience a few years ago — some rancid chicken — and I definitely learned from that experience.) Thaler persuaded me I hadn’t done a very good job, but I’m not so sure …

I also sought out Andrew Gowers, a longtime financial journalist (he was editor of the Financial Times for several years), who went on to work in corporate communications. His first stop: Lehman Brothers, just in time for its collapse. His second gig: British Petroleum, not long before the Deepwater Horizon disaster. So Gowers has a little experience with disaster-management on a scale a good bit larger than a mouse in the salad. His argument is that transparency is vital in such situations, but that Lehman didn’t buy it:

GOWERS: I think when it came to the real crunch, there was a tendency at the top of the firm, and I’m talking about Dick Fuld and his closest lieutenants, to try and close out the world. At a particular point, a story in the Wall Street Journal offended Dick Fuld, he called up the reporter, shouted at her, and said she was banished. And from that point on, Dick’s directive was that nobody on behalf of Lehman was to communicate with anybody from the Wall Street Journal anywhere in the world. I personally found that an absolutely ridiculous posture. And I made my views clear within the firm. I also went out to the Wall Street Journal and said, “This is what Dick Fuld just said, but please keep talking to us.”

Ultimately, after weeks of radio silence from Le Pain Quotidien, the chain’s CEO, Vincent Herbert gave me a call. He agreed to meet me at the restaurant to talk about how the mouse got where it got and what it meant for the restaurant.

Vincent Herbert, CEO of Le Pain Quotidien

I asked him why his company had been so slow to respond to my requests to talk about the problem. He couldn’t have been more apologetic for the incident or more gracious in digging deep to try to explain it:

HERBERT: Well, for us it’s a very new occurrence to have the media coming to us. We’re pretty shy to the media, and therefore what I realized through that incident … is that we need to get better at understanding how to partner with the media so that we are open and transparent in the right context. The first reaction, indeed, of my team was scared and paralyzed, you know, like ‘[we] don’t know what to do,’ ‘it’s only going to be negative,’ ‘it’s a huge liability,’ ‘the less we say the better it is.’ Kind of avoiding. And as a person, and as a leader of this organization, I very much disagree with that.

I also asked about his response to the incident:

HERBERT: There is a crisis happening, and if you look at it, and if you do introspection, in fact it tells you, “Vincent go and dig into the business,” which I did. I went to see, you know, I asked all the questions. Why did it happen? What about the quality assurance? What about the vendor? What about all the processes? What did we do about the customer? You know, how do we respond to the media if the media comes to us? And by asking those questions, I’m coming to realize that there are a couple of things that I could do better. And I think that is the opportunity of owning things that are happening to you.

There’s much more to hear in the podcast, including the role that organic produce may have played in the incident, and what happened to the customer who got the mouse. I do hope you’ll give it a listen. And I have a question for you:

What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had, and how did the restaurant handle it?

Audio Transcript

Mouse in Salad

 

Stephen J. DUBNER: So I’m on Broadway, walking down Broadway in the low 90s, and I’m about to get to the restaurant where I used to go all the time. Well, once a week, once every couple of weeks, and have these long backgammon games with my friend James Altucher and it’s called Le Pain Quotidien and it’s a kind of a chain. But a classy chain with this big wooden communal table and I used to go, like I said, quite often with my friend James and play backgammon and eat healthy, delicious, expensive food.  And um, then something happened that one day that led to my not coming back here once. And today’s the day that I’m going to revisit the scene of the crime.

Chris NEARY: How do you feel? Are you nervous?

DUBNER: No, I’m not really nervous. I mean, am I nervous about something bad happening again? No. Because the thing that happened was bad enough that it has to be very unlikely, because if it happened more frequently there’s no way the place would still be in business. So, I know that it’s a very rare event. And logic tells me it’s a very rare event.

DUBNER: Le Pain Quotiden is a civilized place. That’s reallsy the best word for it: civilized. It serves good pastries and strong coffee, nice salads and tartins -- open-faced sandwiches on organic brown bread, things like that. The clientele has a learned feel -- a lot of Mac Books, a lot of enlightened conversation, classical music playing in the background. The one I used to go to is on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Broadway and 91st Street.

DUBNER: Yeah, so I’m looking, let’s see, I’m looking at brunch. There’s a vegetable quiche, there’s a roasted turkey and avocado tartin, a sharing platter.

DUBNER: I brought one of our producers with me -- Chris Neary. The plan was to eat first and then talk to the manager about the bad thing that happened.

DUBNER: So Chris, what are you thinking of eating here? I’m going to give you one word of advice since you haven’t eaten here before, this is just a personal preference. I’m staying away from salads. I’ll explain later.

DUBNER: Well, actually, let’s explain right now.

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: this is Freakonomics Radio. The podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: Here’s the guy I used to go to Le Pain Quotidien with all the time, James Altucher:

James ALTUCHER: And it was  very comfortable because of the big tables. We had a lot of space. We could spread out. So we would meet there at eleven forty-five, which was always crucial because you beat the lunch crowd by about fifteen minutes without sacrificing on your appetite or anything.

DUBNER: James is a neat guy, a smart guy. He’s done a lot of things -- he’s been an investor, a financial writer, a dot-com whiz, a nationally ranked chess master. James and I play backgammon, usually over lunch -- these long-running, 101-point matches that might take a couple years to complete if we play every two or three weeks. For a long time we played at City Diner, on Broadway and 90th, but the waitress James liked quit. So we moved uptown a block, to Le Pain Quotidien. For the most part, we were really happy there. Until last summer. We were in the middle of a game, when the incident happened.

James ALTUCHER: I noticed this woman was crying next to us.

DUBNER: Right behind you, she was sitting right behind you.

ALTUCHER: Yeah, right behind me. And she was sort of crying and half screaming. You know, I don’t know if you could imagine that because it doesn’t normally happen. Like, little kids don’t cry like that. Like, you know, you don’t usually see adults like kind of crying and screaming at the same time.

DUBNER: And what was your first thought?

ALTUCHER: Curiosity. So I wanted to know what was going on. Like, one, the woman who she was with was walking around. The manager was coming over, and this one woman was kind of like paralyzed, crying, screaming.

DUBNER: What did you think might have happened to her? Because I remember my thought.

ALTUCHER: Well what was you initial thought?

DUBNER: My thought was that these were two old friends. These were two ladies who were maybe, I don’t know, in their sixties or so, it seemed like.

ALTUCHER: Maybe someone had died?

DUBNER: I thought that they were old friends, and one of them, her husband had recently died--this was just the scenario that my mind conjured in a millisecond—and that  they were having a discussion about it, and the emotion just welled up, and she kind of lost it, which seemed like a perfectly natural thing to happen.

ALTUCHER: I didn’t feel like that because that, that sort of crying is sadness, and I didn’t quite feel, I felt more of a terror thing happening. And so that’s why I stood up and basically walked over to the table.

DUBNER: And what happened then?

ALTUCHER: Well, she’s crying, and the manager’s over there. And there was a dead mouse in her salad.

DUBNER: Say it again.

ALTUCHER: So, Le Pain Quotidien, I walked over there, there was a dead mouse in her salad, kind of curled up, almost something like a little fetus baby. But it was a fully grown mouse.

DUBNER: Yep: a mouse carcass in the salad. I had James take a picture of it with my cell phone. It was pretty disgusting. We weren’t done eating, and we were in the middle of a backgammon game, but we decided to leave. I think you can understand why.

ALTUCHER: You actually wanted to do an experiment, I seem to remember.

DUBNER: All right, for the record, I remember things a little bit differently than James.

ALTUCHER: You said, let’s start walking out the door without paying, and the manager is obviously going to follow us, and you were going to say, let’s see what the, how the manager prices our meal.

DUBNER: I’m pretty sure I didn’t suggest we try to dine and dash. As I remember, we went up front and asked to see the manager.

ALTUCHER: So the manager followed us out the door, and you said, Look, we’re really not feeling well, we had to leave, we’ll pay whatever you want. You offered the manager the opportunity to price the meal, it was very Freakonomics-ish of you. And the manager. And you said to me in advance what you thought the manager should do, and in fact he did do that, which is he said, ‘Look, the meal’s on us, don’t worry about it, I hope you and your friends come back here.’ So, he did the absolute right thing.

DUBNER: The manager looked pretty shaken up himself by the mouse, and really, he couldn’t have handled things much better. Look, bad things happen in life. It’s what you do next that matters, right? But the way James tells the story isn’t exactly how I remember it. Here’s how I remember it: I said to the manager, we’re leaving now because the mouse grossed us out. We’ve eaten some of our food, and if you want us to pay, we’ll pay. But I don’t think we should pay. Now, how’s that different from the way James tells it?

ALTUCHER: You offered the manager the opportunity to price the meal.

DUBNER: Well, yes and no. I offered him the chance to set the price, but only after I suggested what the price should be: zero. I was engaging in a little anchoring, as behavioral economists call it. That simply means trying to influence the outcome of a decision by establishing a numerical anchor -- whether or not that number actually makes sense. We’ll get back to the mouse in the salad in a few minutes -- but first, a little detour into the world of anchoring.

Richard THALER: The original experiment was they asked people a question, I think it was, What percentage of African countries are represented in the United Nations?

DUBNER: That’s Richard Thaler, who teaches at the University of Chicago. Many people --myself included -- would call him the godfather of behavioral economics. When I think of anchoring, I think of Dick Thaler.

THALER: And they had a wheel of fortune that they spun with numbers between zero and a hundred, and it would stop at some number, say thirty-five, and then they would ask people, do you think the right answer is above or below thirty-five, and then what do you think the answer is? And people’s answers were influenced by the number that came up on that wheel of fortune, even though they saw that the number was generated at random. So, if you asked people, do you think the percentage of countries in Africa represented in the U.N. has anything to do with the number that came up on the wheel of fortune, they’d say, No, of course not, what are you, crazy? But nevertheless, if they start at thirty-five, they’re going to come up with a lower number than if they start at eighty-five. It’s pretty much inevitable.

DUBNER: So the starting point influences the final answer, even if the starting point is meaningless. That’s how anchoring works. Think about it: If I tell you my boss is a brilliant person, just mind-blowingly brilliant, and then you meet him, and your impression is that he’s a massive idiot, you’re probably less likely to actually conclude he’s an idiot because I’ve anchored you on the idea that he’s brilliant. At Le Pain Quotidien, when I talked to the manager on the way out, I set the anchor of the price of our lunch at zero. If he wanted to charge us for our mousy meal, he would have had to dislodge the anchor. I asked Richard Thaler how he thought I handled it.

THALER: Well, I think it is the case that in many situations you want the other side to make the first offer.

DUBNER: You do? I would think that’s exactly wrong. Why is that?

THALER: Well, because sometimes they’re going to offer a deal better than you would have asked for.

DUBNER: Rats! Now I’m wondering what the Pain Quotidien would have given me if I’d let them set the anchor, like Thaler suggests. Maybe a lifetime of free dining? On the other hand, I’m not sure if I wanted a lifetime of free dining at a place that puts mice in their salads. So James and I took our backgammon game elsewhere. And I didn’t set foot in a Pain Quotidien for months.

Coming up: if you’re running a business, what do you do after the very bad thing has already happened? And: we’ll go back to the scene of the mouse with the Pain Quotidien’s CEO.

Vincent HERBERT: This whole incident started to question our basic philosophy of food.

[UNDERWRITING]

ANNOUNCER: Mouse in salad? From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: So I went back to James -- my backgammon partner-slash-investor friend -- to get his take on the mouse in the salad. He had an interesting view.

ALTUCHER: And look, every chain that goes from regional to national goes through this, not necessarily these types of health issues. But you know, Starbucks, McDonald’s, they all had their growth issues, and this one is having its growth issue in this particular way.

DUBNER: But, you know, is this a growth issue? Or is this one mouse in a salad? I mean it’s just a mouse in the salad. I mean, it’s…

ALTUCHER: No, this is a growth issue, because too many things went wrong. So, each one thing has a low probability, so a mouse gets into an open salad bag that happens to be lying around. That’s inappropriate. The mouse dies there. So, I don’t know, was it there overnight? The guy takes his hand in and puts it in a bowl and didn’t see the mouse. The waitress or waiter brings the mouse over and didn’t notice it. So, four or five things went wrong. Maybe the salad was delivered with the mouse in it to the store to begin with. So, we don’t know where it went wrong. This is a typical thing that could happen, not this exact thing, but this aspect of things breaking down, multiple things breaking down happens when you’re doing that regional to national surge of a business.

DUBNER: Le Pain Quotidien is a growing company -- it started in Brussels in 1990 and now has more than 150 locations in 16 countries. And it’s planning to grow some more, adding about 50 locations in the U.S., England, and France over the next few years. But I wondered: is that growth responsible for the mouse in the salad? I wondered a lot of other things too, like: What did the 91st Street location do after the mouse incident, to prevent a replay? How did they make amends to the customer who got served the mouse? And most of all, when you’re running a business and something bad -- something really bad -- happens, how do you regain the trust of your customers?

These were some of the questions I wanted to ask Le Pain Quotidien, and that’s why I finally went back that day. I found the manager on duty -- a nice-enough guy -- and asked if we could talk. I pulled out a picture of the mouse in the salad. Suddenly he wasn’t quite as nice. He remembered the incident, to be sure. But he said he wouldn’t talk, couldn’t talk about it. He gave me a card from Le Pain Quotidien’s New York headquarters, suggested I talk to corporate communications. So I did. A very nice woman told me the appropriate party would get back to me soon. But it didn’t happen. I kept calling. I was told that a lawyer, and then a P.R. person, would answer my questions about the mouse in the salad. But neither one did. I thought this was strange -- if something like this happened at your company, wouldn’t you at least want to return some reporter’s call and explain yourself, maybe offer an apology, as pro forma as it might be? Since Le Pain Quotidien wasn’t talking to me, I called someone else, someone with his own disaster experience.

Andrew GOWERS: I’m Andrew Gowers. I’m a consultant on communications.

DUBNER: After a long and storied career in journalism, Gowers went into corporate communications -- first at Lehman Brothers, not long before it collapsed, and then at BP, where he worked during the Deepwater Horizon spill. His job was to represent his company to the public. It puts one little mouse in the salad into perspective, doesn’t it? I asked Gowers what a company, large or small, needs to do when disaster strikes.

GOWERS: I do think there’s a serious premium on doing your best to be as transparent and clear about what’s going on as possible. I say that in an appropriately cautious way because I said before, in crises it’s very often not possible to know everything that’s going on, but 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: Le Pain Quotidien wasn’t being very transparent, were they? I gave them another call. They still wouldn’t talk. It was frustrating -- and, I’ll be honest, puzzling. And then finally, after many weeks and many requests, my cell phone rang. It was the company’s CEO. He agreed to meet me back at the scene of the mouse …

HERBERT: So, my name is Vincent Herbert. I’m from Belgium. I’m forty-six. I have three kids, a fantastic wife, living in New York for twenty years. And I’m currently very busy and living a great journey with Le Pain Quotidien as I am overseeing the strategy, and I am overseeing Le Pain Quotidien worldwide.

DUBNER: So Vincent Herbert and I sat at one end of the very long communal table.  And I asked what he did about the mouse in the salad.

HERBERT: There is a crisis happening, and if you look at it, and if you do introspection, in fact it tells you, ‘Vincent, go and dig into the business,’ which I did. I went to see, you know, I asked all the questions. Why did it happen? What about the quality assurance? What about the vendor? What about all the processes? What did we do about the customer? You know, how do we respond to the media if the media comes to us? And by asking those questions, I’m coming to realize that there are a couple of things that I could do better. And I think that is the opportunity of owning things that are happening to you.

DUBNER: Talk to me about the fact that you, the president, wanted to come here and talk to me about this incident.  Whereas the other people who work in your firm took exactly the opposite tack, and what that says about the way firms handle bad news these days.

HERBERT: Well, I think…Well, for us it’s a very new occurrence to have the media coming to us. We’re pretty shy to the media, and therefore what I realized through that incident, another good opportunity, good lesson, is that we need to get better at understanding how to partner with the media so that we are open and transparent in the right context.  The first reaction, indeed, of my team was scared and paralyzed, you know, like don’t know what to do, it’s only going to be negative, it’s a huge liability, the less we say the better it is, kind of avoiding. And as a person, and as a leader of this organization, I very much disagree with that. I think, I think this is an opportunity again to tell the people what we stand for.

DUBNER: O.K., so Herbert is pulling his company down the road toward transparency. The first thing I wanted to know is: What happened? How’d the mouse get in that poor lady’s salad?

HERBERT: Yeah, so we went through all the processes, asked many questions to all the people, and we determined with the vendor that it came from the field. So, it came from the lettuce from the field, and it was very, very interesting, and a very important moment when in fact this whole incident started to question our basic philosophy of food, which is our philosophy of Le Pain Quotidien is organic food. You know, we believe in organic farming. And with an incident like this, it’s amazing how an incident like this couldn’t make people think about well, do we keep going organic? Because this is a business, and something like this, if it’s taken out of proportion, out of context, and we jump all over this, it could destroy this business, it could destroy this small, growing company. People, it was amazing how in my team, even in my team we knew, and some people say, well we’re just going to change, we’ll knock organic. You know, we’re just going to use…

DUBNER: So some people are saying because the mouse came in from the field, and  because it’s an organic, presumably if we go non-organic salad, we would not have a mouse. So there are people putting the pressure on to do that. What did you say to that?

HERBERT: Well, there was no pressure. There was again, a rational, deductive suggestion to say well if we don’t want this to happen again, we just change our philosophy and we go from organic to conventional. We use pesticides, and we use all those crazy things, and yes, they’re not going to be any baby field mouses in lettuce, and it’s not going to happen again. There was nobody on the team that suggested that we had to change the philosophy. That was very reconfirming to me to say my team are still die-hard believers in the core philosophy of Le Pain Quotidien. And for me there was no question.

DUBNER: So the mouse in the salad became an internal referendum on whether Le Pain Quotidien should carry on its organic mission. And the answer was a big, fat yes. Now, is it true that being organic is what led to the mouse? That is, if Le Pain Quotidien used conventional greens, would the mouse have necessarily been eliminated before it got to the salad bowl? Apparently not. We talked to some agricultural academics who told us that typical pesticides don’t actually discourage things like rodents. In other words, you can’t just flip a chemical switch and make sure no mouse ever ends up in your salad.

DUBNER: The woman who got served the rodent at Le Pain Quotidien - the woman whom I had imagined was distraught over some kind of private loss, rather than a public mouse - she didn’t want to be interviewed, and didn’t want me to use her name on the air. But we did exchange a few e-mails. You want to know the most amazing thing? She still eats at Le Pain Quotidien - that same Pain Quotidien - all the time. She respects and admires their organic mission; she forgave them for the mouse entirely. I asked Vincent Herbert how that happened. He said Le Pain Quotidien kept her trust…

HERBERT: by being brutally honest. And I think that honesty, the transparency, the empathy, with that incident was very important. I think the customer understood, one, that this is something that is very unusual. And we’re talking about an incident that happened a year ago in one store, and this and that. And she understood that we felt for this, we were sorry, we were going to do everything we can, but we were honest. We were just human beings talking to another human being, and saying this happened. You know, we’re not going to run away from it, it happened and we’re sorry. But this is life. And I think, I mean, this is a great person. She understood that this is life. There are no guarantees. The only thing that are given to us is to do our best efforts.

DUBNER: What did you…Beside all that, beside communicating with her in a very human, humane way, did you let her eat here for free for a year, for a lifetime, was there any kind of arrangement like that?

HERBERT: Not that I know. I think, I think monetary stimuli and those kinds of things, I don’t think that would make any difference. At the end of the day, you know, it’s like motivating people to work in a company. It’s not the money that you pay, it’s more the culture, the honesty, the transparency, the way you treat people, the way you talk to them. I think that’s more important. I think that’s where the team did a good job, is they weren’t all hiding, they were just like, hey this doesn’t reflect, this is not what we represent, we’re trying to do our best, we have a setback, and we really going to try to do better.

DUBNER: I mean, let’s be honest, you’re talking to me, this is a story that will work its way into the public bloodstream, someday somebody might write Harvard Business Review case study of ‘This is the way Vincent Herbert took a bad incident at a restaurant and turned it into a positive.’ Is that…

HERBERT: Yeah, it is, and I think what everybody, what I know, and I spoke with a couple of friends and my wife, and she is definitely my big mentor - by the way she’s an animal psychologist, so she’s understands those instincts, and she definitely understands me very well - and we were thinking a little bit about the fear factor. And, you know, when things like this happen, you know, the first instinct is kind of like fear, scared, you know, I got to go hiding, you know, this is bad. And I think that the fear factor can push you to do something extraordinary. And I’m nervous about this because I don’t quite know well enough what your intentions are with this. But, again, I got to trust that being brutally honest within an environment of a setback, that it’s not going to be taken out of context, that we’re going to get stronger out of this. This is an opportunity to tell the people that we have integrity, that we have resilience. We have tenacity. I think, you know, I think we will keep going organic. We are not going to jeopardize, we are not going to compromise our vision to provide organic food to our people. And it’s about taking certain risks and managing them.

DUBNER: How can you help but respect Vincent Herbert? Yes, it took a while for his company to answer the call, but here he is now, front and center, taking ownership of the mouse in the salad. I mean, good for him! Bad things happen in life. It might be your fault, it might not be. But at some point, someone’s got to put up his hand and say, I’m. Taking. Responsibility. For better or worse. For the incident itself -- and for the aftermath. By the way, when I went back to Le Pain Quotidien, I stuck to the quiche.  Just didn’t have the stomach for a salad.

[CREDITS]

 

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COMMENTS: 46


  1. Eric M. Jones says:

    [Reposted from Radio Blog]

    So I get a call from an old GF. She is working at a job where she times lines with a stopwatch for actors to get the totals needed for a smooth production. (There are a lot of weird jobs in Hollywood). She works for “All My Children”, a well-known daytime soap opera. The matriarch of this soap-clan is uber-famous Ruth Warrick. and she takes the cast and crew 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 luxurious private rooms in Sir Winston Churchill restaurant (aboard the Queen Mary). My x-GF and I are escorted to a beautiful table with polished brass, candles and gold 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 seconds 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 while driving homeward.

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

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 12
  2. Ama says:

    Just moved to a new city and wanted to celebrate at a BYO so we could drink a great bottle we’d brought with us. Found one right around the corner from our new apartment, great smells, tiny, line out the door. So we put our names in and showed up at the appointed time. After hors d’oeuvres, I thought I saw something moving on the wall, when I looked more closely I saw that it was dozens of somethings…cockroaches! They were moving underneath a painting on the wall and back out again. One came towards me and my BF killed it with a piece of bread. The waiter came over and asked if everything was okay. We told him what was up, and he told us he would pack up our meals. Brought us the check for the full amount, although neither of us had touched our entrees. Needless to say, we haven’t returned, and we didn’t take the to-go containers.

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  3. Sheila says:

    Les Amis restaurant in Austin, 1979

    My sister sticks a fork in her salad and a cockroach jumps out. We tell the hippy waitress. She takes the salad away. When she brings the check the waitress leans her elbows on the table and says “Sorry about the worm”. My sister replies, “That must have been adifferent table; we had a cockroach.”

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  4. Kate says:

    Recently, some co-workers and I were eating lunch at the California Pizza Kitchen, a place we eat often enough, and as one of us worked his way through his side salad, we found a live beetle crawling in the lettuce. I called over the nearest waitress who took the plate and the bug to the manager. We had to wait a bit for the manager to come speak to us, but he apologized profusely and comped our meal. One of my co-workers (not the one with the beetle salad) has declared he won’t eat there again. The other co-worker and I feel it was an honest mistake, handled gracefully and we wouldn’t mind going back, since we’d been having lunch there about once a week for over a year and this was the only time we’d ever had such a problem.

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    • Caleb Huitt says:

      The one I remember most is mint chocolate chip ice-cream. It turns out one of the flakes of chocolate wasn’t, but was in fact a band-aid, obviously used. I mentioned this to the workers, to a general response of “huh”, and nothing else. It wasn’t a restaurant we went to often, and I don’t think we ever did after that incident. Certainly I don’t remember doing so.

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    • mark says:

      Greens will have one of two things in them – insects, or chemicals that are deadly toxic to insects, and whose long-term toxicity in humans is largely unknown (but the recent historical record suggests they are unlikely to be very good for us). Humans have been eating insects since the earliest origins of the species, so we have at least some solid historical precedent to go on.

      I take the odd caterpillar, bug, or bug-bitten leaf in my salad as a good sign.

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  5. Richard Bradley says:

    Speaking of mice and the Upper West Side—While having brunch at the Fairway Cafe at Broadway and 74th a couple years back, I noticed a small mouse running around underneath my table. So did a few other people. With a little quick thinking and some luck, I managed to flip over a coffee mug or something and trap it against the floor. The server somehow scooped it up—I think they were hoping not too many people had seen it, and grateful that I’d caught it without too much of a fuss, because a mouse under a cup is better than a mouse running around a dining room at brunch. They comped the meal for my brunch date and me…

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  6. Joe says:

    “In order to not turn your stomach without warning, I’ve published the photos separately…”

    The post as it sits on the front page of the blog shows the photo. That was the first thing I saw.

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    • James says:

      Unless the original post has been changed, you falsely quoted the text about the photos…

      “In order to not turn your stomach without warning, I’ve published the full-sized photos separately”

      The small photo is used as a catch photo which people can’t help but getting drawn into, yet is small enough not to offend. The full size photo has much more effect and is more likely to offend, so it is only linked . Makes sense to me.

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  7. Delia Lloyd says:

    This is a great story. My worst restaurant memory concerns a bowl of Manhattan Clam Chowder when I was a kid about 8 or 9. We went to a restaurant in central Jersey and when my soup came, I plunged my spoon into the bowl, only to pull out…a giant hair ball. Not a single, isolated strand of hair. Not a whisker. A huge honking hair ball of the kind that could easily clog a drain.

    Have never eaten that soup since.

    You did ask!

    Delia Lloyd
    http://www.realdelia.com

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  8. november says:

    You guys are making me glad I don’t often eat out and sorry that I’ve just finished lunch.

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  9. Greg A says:

    After listening to the podcast, the CEO sounds very sincere about the mouse incident and even better, the problem caused his company to think about how to do business. He seemed to care. The PR manager at Le Pain Quotidien should be fired, there was plenty of time for Dubner to write that the company didn’t care about sanitary conditions. I wish Dubner went back to the restaurant and had the guts to eat the salad in question!

    Worst experience, happened to my friends of mine at a dinner out years ago. The four of us went to dinner–2 couples and now respective spouses. After a great meal at a suburban local restaurant, my friend orders an interesting slice of cheesecake. Waitress comes back and serves it, he takes a couple of bites and only then notices mold spores (it was a typical low-light atmosphere for dinner) on the side of the slice. After a couple of awkward minutes of waiting for the server to reappear, he tells the waitress about the moldy cheesecake. I don’t remember if she said anything but she scoops up the dish and leaves. A few minutes later she reappears and without so much of a “I’m sorry”, plops another slice of cheesecake on the table. This one did not appear to be moldy but no one wanted to find out the hard way. We ended our meal rather quickly after that and my friends found the manager on the way out and told him what happened. I overheard some of the conversation and I think the manager was more concerned about the waitress’ behavior than the cheesecake a la mold

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  10. Jason says:

    OMG – I eat at the very Le Pain. And Le Pain’s are my favorite chain restaurant, well known to me by my stays in Paris, and I have been rooting for them to ‘take over’ America. This is just disturbing for me, but being an NYer I’ll get over it in a few minutes, and then order one of the salads –

    Very impressed you got the CEO to sit down with you at the very scene. Sadly, the woman whose salad it was seems to have been left out -

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  11. Terry McG says:

    Used band aid pad in the gravy, way back in life when I lived in a dorm on campus. A few weeks later, a friend found a used cigarette butt in his jelly doughnut (I was there and saw it – also in the dorm).

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  12. sebastien says:

    As a teenager I used to work as a cook at a small Italian restaurant. One night the waiter jumped into the kitchen and asked if anyone has lost a band-aid. The reason: one customer chewed on a blood stained band-aid that fell in his salad.

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  13. Steevn says:

    It’s great to hear these interesting stories, but in the interest of balance, here’s my non-story. I’ve been eating out for 30+ years and never once found a bug in my food. I once saw a tiny roach scurry on my table but caught him quickly and disposed of him without incident. Not bad. But really, after 20-50 years of eating out, as most people here have under their belt, to have just one or two stories of a bug INSIDE your food is a great track record for the restaurant industry.

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  14. Jeff says:

    I think you got took. This lady does this for free food at an upscale chain… Much more likely than 5 people not noticing the mouse. If this were really that easy to have happen, it would have happened in McDonalds, not Le Quotedien. Just based on the number of restaurants (and number of customers served), this would have happened there first. And people would have made a much bigger stink about it. Economists… think probability.

    Jeff

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    • Lassie says:

      I think she planted the mouse, too. People do do this kind of thing. I read somewhere that at one time the Coca Cola company retained an employeee for just that type of thing. The offended party would bring in a half filled bottle of Coke with a bug or a mouse, and this employee would take a swig, to show it wasn’t actually harmful to one’s health. “Tastes a little musty”, he would say. Maybe the company would give the guy a free case of Coke, but he had to actually prove a dead mouse or bug would actually make him ill, not so easy to do.

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    • ct says:

      Why the nauseating and totally repulsive mouse then? She would’ve got comped if it was a worm or something a little less gross.

      I got comped at The keg once because there was a dead fly in my potatoes.

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  15. Reeseman says:

    Many years ago in France I got to the bottom of my green salad – served, of course, after the meal and before the cheese – turned over the last leaf and found a live, writhing slug in the bottom of the bowl. While they do eat escargots in France, by no means do they eat limaces. I summoned the waiter and asked him to take it to the chef and tell him that this would not do. Not another word was said, but when the check arrived they had comped the salad.

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  16. Anna says:

    I once chipped a tooth on a pebble that was in my salad. When I told the waitress, she simply took the remaining food away. I filed a complaint at the restaurant and was told the owner would get in touch with me. I tried for weeks to get in contact with the owner without any luck. So, I called the state health inspector’s office and reported the incident. The state apparently sent a health inspector to the restaurant. Well, I don’t know what the inspector found, but I did get a check in the mail a few weeks later covering the cost of my meal and a trip to the dentist.

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  17. sallyw says:

    Years ago, while eating with friends at Mama Leone’s in NYC, our table witnessed another patron being led out of the room by two waiters who were holding an entire tablecloth up to her face, into which she was clearly vomiting.

    After that, I couldn’t eat another bite and never went there again. Mama Leone’s was famous for serving huge portions of delicious Italian food. Possibly the huge portions and the resulting gastric symptoms are what drove it out of business.

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  18. xtrinsomnia says:

    In the audio segment, Stephan asked/said “Talk to me about the fact that you, the president, wanted to come here and talk to me about the incident where as the other people who work in your firm took exact the opposite tact and what that says about the way firm handle bad news these days.”

    Talk about anchoring…
    Mr Herbert made himself available is a gesture of good faith. It is merely showing that they are human and they makes mistakes. The question anchored listener to the illusion that this mouse in the salad is a company killing incident and requires CEO to go on record with media to explain themselves.

    “I asked him why his company had been so slow to respond to my requests to talk about the problem. ”
    Again, anchoring; There has not been a defined duration when a company should or must return a inquiry from media. We are so used to the instant news and ticker update, we forget that it also takes time for a company to formulate its response and strategy. Without knowing the complete detail of an issue, one should not assume the time necessary to formulate a response.

    And this is also why I really don’t like modern media. Too much anchors that leads people to take assumption into facts and leads people to a conclusion that is exeggerated or its merit sometimes questionable.

    When will we really get objective reporting from all these modern media? I am still waiting…

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  19. SKV says:

    I’ve found little bugs in salad a couple of times — but this happens even at home, occasionally, if you have a garden.

    The worst was when my ex-husband found HALF a millipede in his Chinese food. The remaining half. He didn’t eat Chinese for several years after that.

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  20. Piper says:

    We had a toenail in a delivery pizza once. Luckily I wasn’t the one who yanked it out of their teeth. We kept ordering their pizza, though. It was really good pizza!

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  21. Randy A MacDonald says:

    That doesn’t look like a mouse to me, it looks like salad ingredients formed to create the illusion of one. Colour me skeptical.

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  22. clark says:

    Jeff says: “If this were really that easy to have happen, it would have happened in McDonalds…”

    Didn’t someone find a severed finger in some fries at another major fast food joint not too long ago?

    Mice are tenacious, if they want to go somewhere, they do.

    SKV says: “I’ve found little bugs in salad a couple of times — but this happens even at home, occasionally, if you have a garden.”

    Yeah, yeah, I grew up eating from gardens and that Never happened to us. There were worms and stuff on the plants – In The Garden – but they never made it to the plate.

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  23. ajax jones says:

    You know, as soon as they say its because it’s organic and that is what can happen, win.

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  24. Guy Winch Ph.D. says:

    Complaining Psychology:
    Vincent Herbert finally did the right thing but his hesitation to do so at first is unfortunate. Too many company executives do not understand complaining psychology and are blind to both the risks and the opportunities such incidents present.
    Research shows that customers whose complaints are handled well with fairness and transparency become even more loyal to the company than they were before they encountered a problem–case in point, the lady returned to Le Pain Quotidien with regularity even after mousegate because the manager handled her complaint well in the moment.
    On the flip side, customers whose complaints are mishandled spread incredibly damaging word of mouth and word-of-mouse (I mean by using the internet, not a reference to the incident). Today with Facebook, Yelp, Twitter, T’umbler, podcasts and endless social media streams, the damage complaining customers can inflict can be devastating to a company or business.
    Therefore, company execs must become educated about complaining psychology and how it impacts customers so they understand how to deal with customer complaints when they arise. Failing to do so can led to damage to their bottom lines, to their reputation and especially to their brand.
    Guy Winch Ph.D
    http://www.guywinch.com

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  25. Jeremy says:

    Applebees- halfway through a chicken cesar salad I took a bite that made a crunch so loud my spouse heard it from across the table, and it hurt pretty bad. Turned out to be a bit of broken plate. The manager knew exactly what had happened- apparently there had been an incident in the kitchen earlier- he apologized profusely, explained that our entire meal was on the house including the desert he was offering to go and get us. Their insurance company called us the next day with a very fair settlement offer to cover the dentist visit. We never even considered not eating at Applebees- stuff happens and we felt well taken care of.

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  26. fishbowlpiranha says:

    Hm… I concur that some foul play may be involved on the part of the customer; having worked in restaurants for many years, you get used to the wacky things people do for a discount. That being said, I am always hesitant to cause a scene over a hair in my food or anything like that, but if it is an issue with mice control, that does need to be quickly addressed. We dealt with one at a restaurant I was employed at, and could not stomach any of their food soon after without an immediate trip to the restroom. Needless to say, I did not work there too long. Mice are nasty little pests.

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  27. all three says:

    Do actually think this is true?

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  28. Jack Carter says:

    The restaurant chain CEO makes an utterly false connection between the presence of a mouse in the salad and the fact that it was organic lettuce. Field mice are just as likely in fields of ordinary lettuce and organic lettuce.

    Then the CEO acts as if organic lettuce wouldn’t be sorted and washed just like ordinary lettuce. That’s nonsense.

    Face it, it’s a thousand times more likely that the salad mouse was a kitchen mouse, not a field mouse that somehow got into a bag of lettuce.

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    • mjpf says:

      From the tiny size of the mouse, it is more likely to be a field mouse. In a fast moving kitchen I am not that surprised that once in a great while something like this will happen.

      As for their reluctance to talk about it: they were probably happy for every day that distanced them from this event and resentful of a reporter who wanted to dredge it up again after a year. I think trying to get a free meal when the mouse wasn’t even in your food is taking advantage. Did he think everyone was going to get a mouse? Sometimes awful things happen. I also think employee sabotage is a possibility in some cases.

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  29. maude says:

    a “field mouse” from the “organic farm”? from experience working in a restaurant my guess is the mousey or baby rat was your typical NYC restaurant rodent. Nice work from the CEO though, using the incident to promote the restaurant’s organic fare.

    hm…The theory of the woman planting the mouse for free food is actually more likely upon reflection.

    or maybe living in NY too long has made me cynical.

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  30. RichayK says:

    People who make the wages – behind the attractive waitress or whatever – don’t really care what is in your food. Corporate structures that alienate people to the point that cannot even enjoy what they serve, or afford the products of their labor, are doomed, and it’s coming soon.

    I purposely sabotage sales at my part-time job. Digg Deep, MR. CEO. And the worst part of it is, they need us way more than we need them. So yeah – if you eat out in restaurants where the owner or his or her direct family member isn’t doing the cooking – or along those lines – you are a part of the problem. Mmmm. Fancy pants. Enjoy that nice bottle, the “neat” place, and whatever winds up on your plate. Mmmm…

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  31. Lyn says:

    I just listened to the broadcast of the mouse story. I must say that I was disappointed in the discussion toward the end of the broadcast. The CEO in my opinion did not take ANY responsibility for the incident. A mouse can be found anywhere (especially where a large concentration of humans are living, like NYC) so the discussion between organic and non organic food vendors was irrelevant. If the CEO were to truly take some accountability in this incident, he would have mentioned that there were opportunities for the company to discover the mouse (via food preparers or other staff), but they unfortunately missed it. Instead the CEO just spouted numerous corporate buzz words and not once did you challenge him.

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  32. Jason says:

    That is a mountain of baloney here… wooboy! I just heard this (21 jan 2012) and I couldn’t believe you gave Herbert a pass on this one. Through all the blah BLAH blah BLAH platitudes about openness and the PQ spirit, here’s what I heard:
    “It wasn’t us. It was the vendor, whom we fired. And if you give us too much grief about this, we’ll just stop being organic.”
    That guy was saying openness and honest and responsibility on the surface and dodging with a petulant ultimatum underneath and you totally bought it.

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  33. Nick Guilford says:

    I love the podcast, and am usually impressed with the analysis of topics covered. I especially like the guide to parenting. By the end of this episode, however, I sat in disbelief about what I had heard.

    The CEO was described as having been transparent, and taken full responsibility, when nothing could be further from the truth. His response really should be written up in crises management text books (or maybe that’s where he got it.)

    His strategy was brilliant: take an unrelated issue that his customers care about (organic farming), and conflate the problem with his commitment to that other issue. It turns the problem in to something noble. Almost like John Edwards stating that his biggest flaw was loving poor people too much, or whatever the line was. The mouse had nothing to do with organic farming–I really would like to hear his logic there. I heard nothing about how the mouse got into the salad… It was a brilliant, but obvious deflection, and it’s too bad that it worked so successfully on you that you missed an opportunity to get to the real issues.

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  34. Joy Mars says:

    Do you edit your own segments? That was the most passive-aggressive piece I’ve ever heard on radio. What was the point of dragging Mr. Herbert’s pathetic mea culpas through the airwaves over and over again? If you want a strong interview, then interview the guy. Call him on his BS about the mouse having anything to do with organics, but please, by setting out to embarrass Herbert with his own repetitive words, you only looked worse by reflection.

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  35. Steve Bennett says:

    I’ve only recently listened to the podcast for this and I have to say I lost a lot of respect for the Freakonomics guys. It’s a mouse in a salad, for god’s sakes – you carry on as if they were committing human rights violations. And forcing the CEO to come in and explain himself like that is tantamount to blackmail.

    I really loved the two Freakonomics books, and I’ve really been enjoying the blog, but I found your behaviour on this really repugnant. It was like you stumbled upon someone’s misfortune, and sought to exploit it to the maximum. Did this chain really deserve this kind of negative exposure for what was, as everyone agrees, a one-in-a-million incident that hurt *nobody*? Your reaction was beyond prissy, it was self-indulgent, self-important, and completely unjustified. Ugh.

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  36. Tomo Dachi says:

    I’ve been in the food business for years and can say this with absolute certainty. The fact that Le Pain Quotidian serves an organic menu has zero connection to why the mouse was found in the salad. The QA/QC protocol for organic foods, if anything, is more stingent than non-0rganic foods, and is no different in the ways in which it would prevent or allow a mouse to end up in a customer’s plate at the point of purchase. Mr. Herbert’s connection between the two is at best flatly incorrect, and at worse, a misleading smokescreen.

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  37. cb-brooklyn, ny says:

    I just heard the story “A Mouse in the Salad” on WNYC, and thanks to you, Le Pain Quotidien has just _gained a customer_! Unlike [probably] most people, I actually like mice [when my cats got too old to keep them away, I got a humane trap and caught them one by one and released them in the local community garden], and would not have been freaked out to have found one in my salad, except to feel sorry for the mouse [though I would of course have sent it back] — especially after hearing that it was most likely a field mouse from the organic produce supplier. Also, in Europe I doubt whether this incident would have raised such a stir — remember RATATOUILLE. In any case, I liked the CEO’s response and would all the more like to support such a business.

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  38. Vicki says:

    What’s worse than finding a foreign object in your food? Finding something and then being treated as if you planted the item to get free food. We were eating at the Moonstone Grill in Trinidad, CA. We were enjoying our meal, but then my husband tried a bite of my food and he got a twist tie in his mouth (such as from a loaf of bread). Our server had been friendly to us before, but when we told her about the twist tie, her manner toward us changed as if she didn’t believe us. She didn’t take the twist tie away, and so we left it there on the table. There was no apology, and although she brought us a free dessert, it didn’t make up for the feeling that we were leaving under a cloud of suspicion. I know that some people do plant items to get a free meal, but by treating honest customers as if they were lying, restaurants guarantee that they won’t come back. This happened several years ago, and I’m sure it’s a good restaurant, but this little mishap was mishandled.

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  39. Marie says:

    The point here is not what people have experienced when dining out. The transparency and owning up to human error by the CEO is noble. What doesn’t seem to have been addressed here is what measures, training and processes have been put in place on the front end from the kitchen workers, wait staff, managers, etc. to better do their job. If mice are found in lettuce bags, be it organic or non-organic, was it communicated to staff preparing salads and were they simply trained to remedy prior to serving same and report to manager if and when occurring. Far too often customer service issues are required to be escalated when need not be if staff are well trained and communication on all levels exists. Often hear people’s frustrations with this aspect from being routed to various departments/persons to get a simple answer or resolution and never really achieving a satisfactory response or solution. Would love to hear what companies, large and small, have done or are doing to provide excellent customer service and relations.

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