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:
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.
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.
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?