A Frog in the Salad

Two years ago, we did a podcast on a dining experience Stephen Dubner had at Le Pain Quotidien. The podcast was called "Mouse in the Salad," so you can probably guess what happened. And it looks like animals in salads are all the rage lately -- The Atlantic Wire reports that a Wall Street Journal editor recently found a frog in her Pret A Manger nicoise salad. The reason given by Pret was similar to the one given by Le Pain Quotidien CEO Vincent Herbert in our podcast: it's organic. From WSJ.com:

Ellen Roggemann, vice president of brand marketing for the company in the U.S., said that Pret A Manger’s goal of selling “handmade natural food,” often made from organic ingredients, could be partially to blame for the frog in the salad.

“We don’t use any pesticides with our greens and they go through multiple washing cycles,” she said. “An unfortunate piece of organic matter has made its way through,” she added.

In our podcast, Dubner's friend James Altucher had an interesting perspective on how things like this happen:

How Does that Steak Frites Happen?

If you want to remind yourself what a really good magazine article can be, check out Willy Staley's N.Y. Times Magazine piece "22 Hours in Balthazar." Balthazar is a SoHo restaurant that's been around long enough to be an institution but is still good enough to inspire devotion from scene-setters, tourists, and locals alike. How?

That's the question the article (and photographs) answer, in an elegant and fact-filled manner. For instance:

For now, everything is quiet at Balthazar. The last guests from the night before left just a few hours ago, and the nighttime porters are still finishing their thorough scrub of the restaurant. But the delivery trucks are starting to arrive all over again, idling on Crosby. Men in lifting belts wheel hand trucks stacked high with food from across the globe: 80 pounds of ground beef, 700 pounds of top butt, 175 shoulder tenders, 1 case of New York strips, all from the Midwest; 5 pounds of chicken livers, 6 cases of chicken bones, 120 chicken breast cutlets; 30 pounds of bacon; 300 littleneck clams, 110 pounds of mussels from Prince Edward Island, another 20 pounds from New Zealand, 50 trout, 25 pounds of U10 shrimp (fewer than 10 pieces per pound), 55 whole dorade, 3 cases of escargot, 360 Little Skookum oysters from Washington State, 3 whole tunas, 45 skates, 18 black sea bass, 2 bags of 100 to 120 whelks, 45 lobster culls. That’s just the fish and meat order.

How Much for a Margarita?

I was at a restaurant the other day which had an interesting feature: the two menus they gave us listed different prices for the same items. One menu quoted $12 per margarita and the other offered the exact same drink for $11.

For a split second I wondered whether the restaurant was carrying out some sort of pricing field experiment. I’m pretty sure, though, that wasn’t the case. Just regular old incompetence, I suspect.

I wouldn’t usually pay $11 or $12 for a margarita, but I was so curious in this circumstance that I went ahead and ordered one. (Well, actually, I ordered three by the time I was done.)

What was the true price? Strangely, it turned out not to be $12, or even $11. They charged me exactly $7.94 per drink.

Luckily, I didn’t know that in advance or I might have had a fourth margarita, which definitely would have been a bad idea.

Using Lottery Payouts to Fight Tax Evasion?

Yesterday we gave an update on how attaching a lottery payout to bank accounts can help people save more money. A reader named Drew writes in about a different lottery nudge:

When I was studying abroad in China (2006) a friend told me that I should always insist on getting the receipt whenever I ate at a restaurant, because the receipts are scratch-off lottery tickets.

I didn't think very much of it at the time (as a visitor, I didn't think I'd ever collect any winnings), but one of the Freakonomics podcasts that talked about capturing unreported income (I think it was "The Tax Man Nudgeth") reminded me of their ingenious system to encourage customers to demand that restaurants report their income.

I wasn't sure if it was still going on, but this blog suggests that it still was at least a year ago. Here is an older post with a little bit more detail about the system.

Should No-Shows Be Shamed on Twitter?

Restaurants that take reservations risk misallocating resources if a customer doesn't show up. So is there a good way to place an appropriate cost on no-shows? Philly.com reports on one restaurant owner's tactic and its drawbacks:

The owner of L.A. restaurant Red  Medicine went to social media to Tweet the full names of no-shows Saturday.

Eater L.A. has an interview with Red Medicine owner Noah Ellis, who said he tweeted the names out of frustration.

"Either restaurants are forced to overbook and make the guests (that actually showed up) wait, or they do what we do, turn away guests for some prime-time slots because they’re booked, and then have empty tables,” he said.

Weighing in on the matter was Consumerist, which posits that the tactic may backfire, as some patrons may balk at making a reservation there, even if they intend to keep it.

The Economics of the Vegetarian Option

Went to a one-star Michelin restaurant in Bonn last night.  One of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. Three of the four of us ordered the five-course prix fixe all-vegetarian menu.  As we left, I thanked the chef-owner -- who responded “Despite it being vegetarian!”

He seemed slightly upset about serving this menu. Was it because his revenue from it was only €63 compared to €91 for a five-course regular menu (which had one meat and one fish course)?  Maybe. But I don’t believe the vegetarian menu used less labor, nor was there a €28 difference in materials cost. 

The Strangest Price Discrimination You'll Ever See?

Adriano Dutra Teixeira, a Brazilian economist, sent us this photo from a restaurant. As he translates:

"Social Responsibility: 50% discount on meal for clients over 70 or bariatric surgery (stomach reduction)."

He adds:

I thought it was hilarious! So I wrote a blog post with a microeconomic approach to the promotion, using price discrimination.

I had to chuckle, in part because we're finishing up a podcast about commitment devices, in which Levitt offers some bizarre alternatives to bariatric surgery (which we wrote about here), since it is such a drastic commitment.

The Days of Wine and Mouses

Season 2, Episode 1

When you take a sip of Cabernet, what are you tasting? the grape? the tannins? the oak barrel? Or is it the price?

Believe it or not, the most dominant flavor may be the dollars. Thanks to the work of some intrepid and wine-obsessed researchers (yes, there is an American Association of Wine Economists), we have a new understanding of the relationship between wine, critics, and consumers.

One of these researchers is Robin Goldstein, whose paper detailing more than 6,000 blind tastings reaches the conclusion that “individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine.”

Why, then, do we pay so much attention to critics and connoisseurs who tell us otherwise?

Customer Dis-service

I recently had one of the strangest customer service episodes I’ve ever experienced. It took place at Café Bon Appetit in downtown Chicago. A group of twenty of us were eating lunch there. It is one of those places that has many food stations to choose from, then you pay for your food and find a table. There is no table service. It's a huge restaurant. I don’t think it's an exaggeration to say that the restaurant can seat 300 people. That is one of the reasons we go there in a big group -- there are always plenty of seats.

One of the diners, who is on some sort of vegan, non-gluten health kick, had brought her own lunch. The rest of us had bought our lunch there. We found a table in the nearly completely empty back seating area. About halfway through lunch, the restaurant manager appeared. I assumed it was to thank us for coming and to ask how the food was. It turned out his mission was quite different.

Innovations in Restaurant Tipping: Just Do the Math For Us

At a local cafe in western Massachusetts the printed bill contains something I’ve never seen before: At the bottom is a list of percentages—15, 18 and 20—with suggested gratuity amounts based specifically on the bill’s total. While tipping is a social norm in the U.S., it’s a hassle to figure out the right amount to tip. The tip amount is rarely suggested, and never in specific dollar terms (though sometimes a gratuity is included for larger groups of diners).

So why not do this everywhere? Perhaps it could be viewed as crass; but it saves time and makes the social norm explicit (as it already is in our minimum wage laws)—and it might shame those who refuse to tip. I hope this innovation spreads rapidly in this time of apparently decreasing social cohesion.