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

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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?


Eric M. Jones

[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.

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Ama

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.

Richard

Really? You paid? Not in a million years would I pay that check...

Sheila

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.”

Kate

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.

Caleb Huitt

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.

Richard Bradley

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...

Joe

"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.

James

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.

Delia Lloyd

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
www.realdelia.com

november

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

Greg A

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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Jason

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 -

Terry McG

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).

sebastien

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.

Steevn

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.

Jeff

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

Lassie

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.