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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.