I Didn’t Order That Insect

Dear Helena,

The other night my wife and I were out for dinner at a nice pizzeria. We were halfway through our salads when I bit down on a ball of mud. We called the waitress, but she seemed at a loss about what to do. She gave a cursory apology but did not help matters by saying, “This happens from time to time.” Then she took the salads away. She offered us a new salad (which we couldn’t face) but nothing else. We thought it was pretty poor damage control. If you find something gross in your food, what should the restaurant do? —Dirty Mouth

Dear Dirty Mouth,

When you find a Band-Aid, bug, or other foreign object in your food, the server should whisk the dish away and get the manager or maître d’. “Servers don’t have the authority to resolve the issue,” says Douglas R. Brown, author of The Restaurant Manager’s Handbook. A manager or maître d’ can decide how much of your meal to comp and investigate the origin of the offending item. Plus, if he or she comes over to your table, you feel as if the restaurant is taking the incident seriously.

A simple “sorry” is not enough. A satisfying apology, in this case, should include the following:

Take responsibility. Sometimes restaurants shrink from doing this because they’re afraid of getting sued. Instead, they try to downplay or dismiss the problem. When I found a beetle in my salad once, the waitress airily responded: “What do you expect? It’s organic.” In fact, according to one study, people are less likely to be litigious if the wrongdoer offers a full apology.

Empathize. Mary Burnham, a public relations director in Healdsburg, California, found “a small, gray, very wriggly worm” on a piece of lettuce that accompanied her takeout burger. She took the burger back to the restaurant, but the worm had disappeared. “People looked at me like I was crazy. Then someone saw it on my sleeve.” Nonetheless, she still patronizes the restaurant, because the manager called her at home and offered a “distraught” apology. “His tone won me over,” she says. “He sounded very upset.”

Identify the source. Jay Perrin, general manager of Campanile in Los Angeles, says the restaurant should “show [it’s] taking steps to find the source of the problem and fix it. The customer wants to know it won’t happen again.” If the restaurant can pinpoint the source, it reassures the customer, proving the entire kitchen isn’t filthy. Diane Barker, a San Francisco attorney, once ordered a Manhattan that was “swimming with ants.” Eventually, the bartender discovered that the ants were in the vermouth. “I was weirdly satisfied. … Once the mystery was solved, I could relax.”

Obviously, you shouldn’t pay for the tainted dish or drink. And most likely you won’t want another one, even if it’s free. But the restaurant should compensate you for your distress by giving you something else. It might offer a bottle of wine or a gift voucher, but Perrin recommends surprising the customer with a free dessert. This makes economic sense, says Brown. “Dessert is a very high-markup item,” he says, explaining that it typically costs the restaurant only 20 percent of what the customer pays, compared with 40 percent for entrées. Perrin says, “I put in [a dessert] for each member of the table, with something chocolate to cover all the bases. Then I would apologize again.” That way, however traumatic your dinner was, it ends on a sweet note.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.