Why Pay $36.09 for Rancid Chicken?

In light of our anonymous poster’s Starbucks story (see “A $2 Cup of Coffee”), here’s my own tale of food and economics:

An old friend came to town not long ago and we met for a late lunch on the Upper West Side. Trilby ordered a burger, no bread, with brie; I ordered half a roasted chicken with mashed potatoes. The food was slow in coming but we had so much catching-up to do that we didn’t care.

My chicken, when it arrived, didn’t look good but I took a bite. It was so rancid I had to spit it out into a napkin. Absolutely disgusting gagging rotten rancid. I summoned the waitress, a young and pretty redhead, who made a suitably horrified expression, then took the food away and brought back a menu.

The manager appeared. She was older than the waitress, with long dark hair and a French accent. She apologized, said the chefs were checking out the dish now, trying to determine if perhaps the herbs or the butter had caused the problem.

I don’t think so, I told her. I think your chicken is rotten. I cook a lot of chicken, I said, and I know what rotten chicken smells like. Trilby agreed: you could smell this plate across the table, probably across the restaurant.

The manager was reluctant to concede. They had just gotten the shipment of chicken that morning, she said, which struck me as relevant as saying that No, so-and-so couldn’t have committed a murder today because he didn’t commit one yesterday.

The manager left and, five minutes later, returned. You’re right! she said. The chicken was bad. The chefs had checked the chicken, found it rotten, and were throwing it away. Victory! But for whom? The manager apologized again, asked if I’d like a free dessert or drink. Well, I said, first of all let me try to find some food on your menu that doesn’t seem disgusting after that chicken. I ordered a carrot-ginger-orange soup, some French fries, and sauteed spinach.

Trilby and I then ate, fairly happily, though the taste of the rancid chicken remained with me; in fact, it remains with me still. Trilby had had a glass of wine before we ordered, and took another with her meal, sauvignon blanc. I drank water. When the waitress cleared our plates, she asked again if we wanted complimentary dessert. No, we said, just coffee.

As Trilby and I talked, I mentioned that I had not long ago interviewed Richard Thaler, the godfather of Behavioral Economics, which seeks to marry psychology and economics. Thaler and I had considered some small experiments at lunch — offering the waiter a gigantic tip, perhaps, in exchange for special considerations — but we didn’t get around to it. Trilby was interested, so we kept talking about money. I mentioned the behavioralists’ concept of “anchoring” (which used-car salesmen in particular know so well): establish a price that may be 100% more than what you need in order to ensure that you’ll still walk away with, say, a 50% profit.

Talk turned to what we might say when our check came. There seemed two good options: “We don’t care for any free dessert, thanks, but considering what happened with the chicken, we’d like you to comp our entire meal.” That would establish an anchor at 0% of the check. Or this option: “We don’t care for any free dessert, thanks, but considering what happened with the chicken, would you please ask the manager what you can do about the check.” That would establish an anchor at 100% of the check.

Just then the waitress brought the check. It was for $31.09. Perhaps out of shyness, or haste, or — most likely — a desire to not appear cheap (when it comes to money, things are never simple), I blurted out Option 2: Please see what the manager “can do about the check.” The waitress replied, smiling, that we had already been given the two glasses of wine for free. To me in particular this felt like slim recompense, since it was Trilby who had drunk the wine while it was I who still radiated with the flavor of rancid chicken. But the waitress, still smiling, duly took the check and headed toward the manager. She zipped right over, also smiling.

“Considering what happened with the chicken,” I said, “I wonder what you can do about the check.”

“We didn’t charge you for the wines,” she said, with great kindness, as if she were a surgeon who had thought she would have to remove both my kidneys but found instead that she had only had to remove one.

“Is that the best that you’re prepared to offer me?” I said (still unable to establish an anchor at 0%).

She looked at me intently, still friendly. Here she was making a calculation, preparing to make the sort of slight gamble that is both financial and psychological, the sort of gamble that each of us makes every day. She was about to gamble that I was not the kind of person who would make a scene. After all, I had been friendly throughout our dilemma, never raising my voice or even uttering the words “vomit” or “rancid” aloud. And she plainly thought this behavior would continue. She was gambling that I wouldn’t throw back my chair and holler, that I wouldn’t stand outside the restaurant telling prospective customers that I’d gagged on my chicken, that the whole lot was rancid, that the chefs either must have smelled it and thought they could get away with it, or, if they hadn’t smelled it, were so detached from their job that who knows what else — a spoon, a sliver of thumb, a dollop of disinfectant — might find its way into the next meal. And so, making this gamble, she said “Yes”: as in Yes, that is the best that she was prepared to offer me. “All right,” I said, and she walked away. I left a $5 tip — no sense penalizing the poor waitress, right? — walked outside and put Trilby in a cab. The manager had gambled that I wouldn’t cause trouble, and she was right.

Until now.

The restaurant, should you care to note, is called French Roast, and is on the northeast corner of 85th and Broadway, in Manhattan.

Last I checked, the roast chicken was still on the menu. Bon appetit.


Scipio

Nice story. Good way to explain the economic/negotiating principle (far more intelligible than that staple of Contracts, Getting to Yes).Sounds like a not-so-good restaurant.

Glo

I've been reading a lot lately about the Best Buy scandal (mostly because my brother, a behavioral psychologist keeps discussing it in vast theoretical detail). The gist is that they advertise products they carry in very low supply. The product sells out quickly, but lots of people come. The foot traffic increases sells. There's a lawsuit, or something, but that's about all I get from my brother's babbling.The point is, that the same psychological tendency applies in both situations (I think. I'm not my genius brother.). Human social behavior generally dictates that we behave in a rational manner. We enter the store, they don't have what we wanted, but we accept that and usually give them money anyway. I'm not saying we should throw temper tantrums, I just think it's interesting to see who keeps winning the battles.

Anonymous

Heh I just think that if you're going to punish them, you should have done it up front. How many people are going to read all the way to the bottom of that longish post? Make a new post that says: 'I was treated terribly by the French Roast on 85th and Broadway. For the detals, click here.' Maybe a little more so that it is clear that you're legitimate. It just seems like this isn't very effective punishment because you have to read too long.

R William Z

There's no excuse for what happened to you, but I definitely believe the level of service is much better stateside.At a restaurant in Western Europe, I found a worm in my salad. Not only was the management hostile and refused to apologize, they called the police to insist that I pay for the entire meal (to include the food that I hadn't even received).

Anonymous

Americans are sheep. Next time you are in a long check out line standing at the back, call out for the manager to open another line. Then watch the faces in front of you. They are pissed off when standing in the line, yet horrified when someone speaks up! Can you imagine what service would be like if we all spoke up when it was bad?

Jessica

Ha Ha Ha!!!!

Ken Houghton

Until I got to the name of the restaurant, I was amazed.But French Roast has been doing that type of thing for years. (They are the only store of any type on the Upper West Side of which I still speak negatively--and I moved out of the area in 1997.) And will undoubtedly continue to do so.

Shauna

Place the following ad in the New York Times:Read the entrhalling account of the Rancid Chicken served at a famous New York eatery at http://www.freakonomics.com/blog.php Send a copy of this to the restaurant. Tell them you may reconsider your post, if they reconsider their mistreatment of their customer.

Tyler

I agree with the post by John above.Is the retribution you exact by posting the name of the restaurant (presumably decreased business) an incentive if the manager never finds out?? While your post certainly reaches a wider audience than direct confrontation, you cannot be certain that the intended effect is achieved (i.e. the manager regrets what she did, and "never does it again.") If the French Roast has, in fact, noticed a decrease in business (not sure if that is likely, since Ken says this joint has been doing this for 8 years and getting away with it) how can we know that they will attribute this loss to your post??Direct confrontation, while unpleasant, reaches the intended audience, and may have saved the next "easy mark" that asked for help with the check.

Thomas

On a related note, have you noticed some locations are black holes for restaurants? The location may seem like a good location but no restaurant lasts for more than a year. Why do you think this is? I think it is because people subconciously don't want to invest in a restaurant that will be gone soon but by doing this you ruin any chance the restaurant has of success.

Dave Meleney

I like Shauna's idea, and if it got a lot of publicity such restrained but powerful response to bad treatment might become common. Between Wendy's loosing millions over a planted finger and all the cases like your own there is room for lots of innovation and improvement in the area performance reputation, and Ebay would seem to be on the point.It's staggering to imagine what lays ahead.

Anonymous

A few semi-random, related thoughts:(1) Didn't the manager essentially offer to recompense you for your distress? Didn't you essentially turn her down? Wasn't that a bit underhanded of you to not make a counter-proposal until after the meal was eaten? Why didn't your resolve the compensation issue up-front?(2) Do you take as much time to recognize exceptional service as you do bad?Just wondering...

horsesshouldbesoluck

A concept restaurant proposed--- rant, total rant--- no good or bad prerequistes--- just plain vulgar language what the f you want,get the idea? If you build it will they come.

J. H. Schoch

Careful now...read the story about Chef Assassin in Palahniuk's book Haunted. You never know what could happen...

Steve

Hm...couldn't you have told her about the possiblity of you publishing the experience before you paid? Actually publishing it afterwards hurts the store, but you didn't really gain anything (except, perhaps, satisfaction).

Anonymous

Whilst I agree that you were treated very poorly by the manager I do not think you should have gotten your entire meal compensated. I would not have paid for the chicken but anything else you may have eaten should have been paid for (regardless of how lousy it was). Having said that, I do think the manager has an obligation to make it up to you by giving you a meal certificate for 25 or 50 dollars to show good faith. A free dessert (which was probably not homemade) and wine isn't enough for what you had to go through.

thsutton

If you serve rotten meat, then your kitchen has some *very* big problems. Your stock control and handling practices are ineffective (and perhaps in breach of health regulations) and you obviously don't have any sort of quality control practices in place.I have refused to accept money from a party that was served equally unsatisfactory (though not rotten) food before, and would certainly do so again if I were in that manager's position.

peter86

I just hope, when the service merits, you leave more than a $5 tip on a $31 bill. I mean, c'mon, if you don't think a $5 tip is a penalty than I hope you never have to wait tables for a living (or drive a cab, cut hair, etc.) There could be an entire book written about folks that don't give a second thought to spending $2000 on the latest electronic gadget and than tip their barber/hairstylist $3...just someone that knows these folks aren't lounging by the pool at their Hampton Estate...Cheers all. throw the 15% out the window, tip 30%...I know most of us can afford it.

ihateyoko

One reason for meakness in the restaurant followed by rage on the blogpage is that interpersonal confrontation can be costly. By providing poor service, the restaurant also imposes a a psychic cost on the poor customer who struggles to know how to stand his ground without becoming rude. Restaurant managers can avoid making any big concession on the bill because they knew that few customers are willing to pay this emotional toll. Negative web reviews are one way to shift this cost back onto managment. On behalf of us mild-mannered souls who've suffered from this kind of negative externality for years, I say hooray for the blogosphere.

Tao of Boxes

Personally, I would not have paid a cent, would have moaned a little to see what they were willing to offer in compensation, then would have left in disgust with my friend to go and eat somewhere else, assuming restaurants are fairly plentiful in the neighbourhood. Admittedly I hardly go to restaurants any more because it's such a lottery. Does anyone eat shellfish anymore unless they're by the coast? You'd have to be mad.If time was short or no other eateries available I would have just got drinks (opened at the table to avoid spitting) and then left without paying, whether this was offered or not. I can usually go without food for a couple of hours without fainting.Like most Europeans I am totally mystified by the Americans propensity to tip - the only reasonable viewpoint IMO is that of Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs. A tip should be a reward not an obligation. Having said that, service is much better in American restaurants than over here. Presumably because the waiter is expecting a tip in the US but doubtful of getting one here. So perhaps by tipping you are making society-as-a-whole's eating experience better but not necessarily your own (especially as the tip is at the end of the meal).As for whether the writer of this post's interests were best served by his actions - surely a good blog story is worth $30 for a writer. Good for the site, good for book sales etc. Instant financial compensation and revenge, although significant, were perhaps not his overriding motivations here. Great story by the way.

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