Mouse in the Salad (Ep. 37)

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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:

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?


Reeseman

Many years ago in France I got to the bottom of my green salad - served, of course, after the meal and before the cheese - turned over the last leaf and found a live, writhing slug in the bottom of the bowl. While they do eat escargots in France, by no means do they eat limaces. I summoned the waiter and asked him to take it to the chef and tell him that this would not do. Not another word was said, but when the check arrived they had comped the salad.

Anna

I once chipped a tooth on a pebble that was in my salad. When I told the waitress, she simply took the remaining food away. I filed a complaint at the restaurant and was told the owner would get in touch with me. I tried for weeks to get in contact with the owner without any luck. So, I called the state health inspector's office and reported the incident. The state apparently sent a health inspector to the restaurant. Well, I don't know what the inspector found, but I did get a check in the mail a few weeks later covering the cost of my meal and a trip to the dentist.

sallyw

Years ago, while eating with friends at Mama Leone's in NYC, our table witnessed another patron being led out of the room by two waiters who were holding an entire tablecloth up to her face, into which she was clearly vomiting.

After that, I couldn't eat another bite and never went there again. Mama Leone's was famous for serving huge portions of delicious Italian food. Possibly the huge portions and the resulting gastric symptoms are what drove it out of business.

xtrinsomnia

In the audio segment, Stephan asked/said "Talk to me about the fact that you, the president, wanted to come here and talk to me about the incident where as the other people who work in your firm took exact the opposite tact and what that says about the way firm handle bad news these days."

Talk about anchoring...
Mr Herbert made himself available is a gesture of good faith. It is merely showing that they are human and they makes mistakes. The question anchored listener to the illusion that this mouse in the salad is a company killing incident and requires CEO to go on record with media to explain themselves.

"I asked him why his company had been so slow to respond to my requests to talk about the problem. "
Again, anchoring; There has not been a defined duration when a company should or must return a inquiry from media. We are so used to the instant news and ticker update, we forget that it also takes time for a company to formulate its response and strategy. Without knowing the complete detail of an issue, one should not assume the time necessary to formulate a response.

And this is also why I really don't like modern media. Too much anchors that leads people to take assumption into facts and leads people to a conclusion that is exeggerated or its merit sometimes questionable.

When will we really get objective reporting from all these modern media? I am still waiting...

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SKV

I've found little bugs in salad a couple of times -- but this happens even at home, occasionally, if you have a garden.

The worst was when my ex-husband found HALF a millipede in his Chinese food. The remaining half. He didn't eat Chinese for several years after that.

Piper

We had a toenail in a delivery pizza once. Luckily I wasn't the one who yanked it out of their teeth. We kept ordering their pizza, though. It was really good pizza!

Randy A MacDonald

That doesn't look like a mouse to me, it looks like salad ingredients formed to create the illusion of one. Colour me skeptical.

clark

Jeff says: "If this were really that easy to have happen, it would have happened in McDonalds..."

Didn't someone find a severed finger in some fries at another major fast food joint not too long ago?

Mice are tenacious, if they want to go somewhere, they do.

SKV says: "I’ve found little bugs in salad a couple of times — but this happens even at home, occasionally, if you have a garden."

Yeah, yeah, I grew up eating from gardens and that Never happened to us. There were worms and stuff on the plants - In The Garden - but they never made it to the plate.

ajax jones

You know, as soon as they say its because it's organic and that is what can happen, win.

Guy Winch Ph.D.

Complaining Psychology:
Vincent Herbert finally did the right thing but his hesitation to do so at first is unfortunate. Too many company executives do not understand complaining psychology and are blind to both the risks and the opportunities such incidents present.
Research shows that customers whose complaints are handled well with fairness and transparency become even more loyal to the company than they were before they encountered a problem--case in point, the lady returned to Le Pain Quotidien with regularity even after mousegate because the manager handled her complaint well in the moment.
On the flip side, customers whose complaints are mishandled spread incredibly damaging word of mouth and word-of-mouse (I mean by using the internet, not a reference to the incident). Today with Facebook, Yelp, Twitter, T'umbler, podcasts and endless social media streams, the damage complaining customers can inflict can be devastating to a company or business.
Therefore, company execs must become educated about complaining psychology and how it impacts customers so they understand how to deal with customer complaints when they arise. Failing to do so can led to damage to their bottom lines, to their reputation and especially to their brand.
Guy Winch Ph.D
http://www.guywinch.com

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Jeremy

Applebees- halfway through a chicken cesar salad I took a bite that made a crunch so loud my spouse heard it from across the table, and it hurt pretty bad. Turned out to be a bit of broken plate. The manager knew exactly what had happened- apparently there had been an incident in the kitchen earlier- he apologized profusely, explained that our entire meal was on the house including the desert he was offering to go and get us. Their insurance company called us the next day with a very fair settlement offer to cover the dentist visit. We never even considered not eating at Applebees- stuff happens and we felt well taken care of.

fishbowlpiranha

Hm... I concur that some foul play may be involved on the part of the customer; having worked in restaurants for many years, you get used to the wacky things people do for a discount. That being said, I am always hesitant to cause a scene over a hair in my food or anything like that, but if it is an issue with mice control, that does need to be quickly addressed. We dealt with one at a restaurant I was employed at, and could not stomach any of their food soon after without an immediate trip to the restroom. Needless to say, I did not work there too long. Mice are nasty little pests.

all three

Do actually think this is true?

Jack Carter

The restaurant chain CEO makes an utterly false connection between the presence of a mouse in the salad and the fact that it was organic lettuce. Field mice are just as likely in fields of ordinary lettuce and organic lettuce.

Then the CEO acts as if organic lettuce wouldn't be sorted and washed just like ordinary lettuce. That's nonsense.

Face it, it's a thousand times more likely that the salad mouse was a kitchen mouse, not a field mouse that somehow got into a bag of lettuce.

mjpf

From the tiny size of the mouse, it is more likely to be a field mouse. In a fast moving kitchen I am not that surprised that once in a great while something like this will happen.

As for their reluctance to talk about it: they were probably happy for every day that distanced them from this event and resentful of a reporter who wanted to dredge it up again after a year. I think trying to get a free meal when the mouse wasn't even in your food is taking advantage. Did he think everyone was going to get a mouse? Sometimes awful things happen. I also think employee sabotage is a possibility in some cases.

maude

a "field mouse" from the "organic farm"? from experience working in a restaurant my guess is the mousey or baby rat was your typical NYC restaurant rodent. Nice work from the CEO though, using the incident to promote the restaurant's organic fare.

hm...The theory of the woman planting the mouse for free food is actually more likely upon reflection.

or maybe living in NY too long has made me cynical.

RichayK

People who make the wages - behind the attractive waitress or whatever - don't really care what is in your food. Corporate structures that alienate people to the point that cannot even enjoy what they serve, or afford the products of their labor, are doomed, and it's coming soon.

I purposely sabotage sales at my part-time job. Digg Deep, MR. CEO. And the worst part of it is, they need us way more than we need them. So yeah - if you eat out in restaurants where the owner or his or her direct family member isn't doing the cooking - or along those lines - you are a part of the problem. Mmmm. Fancy pants. Enjoy that nice bottle, the "neat" place, and whatever winds up on your plate. Mmmm...

Lyn

I just listened to the broadcast of the mouse story. I must say that I was disappointed in the discussion toward the end of the broadcast. The CEO in my opinion did not take ANY responsibility for the incident. A mouse can be found anywhere (especially where a large concentration of humans are living, like NYC) so the discussion between organic and non organic food vendors was irrelevant. If the CEO were to truly take some accountability in this incident, he would have mentioned that there were opportunities for the company to discover the mouse (via food preparers or other staff), but they unfortunately missed it. Instead the CEO just spouted numerous corporate buzz words and not once did you challenge him.

Jason

That is a mountain of baloney here... wooboy! I just heard this (21 jan 2012) and I couldn't believe you gave Herbert a pass on this one. Through all the blah BLAH blah BLAH platitudes about openness and the PQ spirit, here's what I heard:
"It wasn't us. It was the vendor, whom we fired. And if you give us too much grief about this, we'll just stop being organic."
That guy was saying openness and honest and responsibility on the surface and dodging with a petulant ultimatum underneath and you totally bought it.

Nick Guilford

I love the podcast, and am usually impressed with the analysis of topics covered. I especially like the guide to parenting. By the end of this episode, however, I sat in disbelief about what I had heard.

The CEO was described as having been transparent, and taken full responsibility, when nothing could be further from the truth. His response really should be written up in crises management text books (or maybe that's where he got it.)

His strategy was brilliant: take an unrelated issue that his customers care about (organic farming), and conflate the problem with his commitment to that other issue. It turns the problem in to something noble. Almost like John Edwards stating that his biggest flaw was loving poor people too much, or whatever the line was. The mouse had nothing to do with organic farming--I really would like to hear his logic there. I heard nothing about how the mouse got into the salad... It was a brilliant, but obvious deflection, and it's too bad that it worked so successfully on you that you missed an opportunity to get to the real issues.

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