Behind the Scenes of a Food-Poisoning Shakedown

May I Speak to the Manager

This column is the first in a semiregular series by a restaurant general manager who prefers to remain anonymous. He works at a prominent San Francisco restaurant.

I tend to arrive at the restaurant a few hours before my staff. This time is filled with paperwork, future-looking projects, and general firefighting. I make it a rule to avoid answering the phone because (1) our phone rings constantly, (2) explaining to potential guests that we have a two-month wait for a reservation sucks, and (3) I hired a reservationist for this particular torture reason.

And yet a couple of months back, I answered the phone. A guest started to recount a tale about his family's visit to our restaurant. I figured he wanted to commend our service and food, say thank you, and ask for a future reservation. And then he declared, "We had dinner there two nights ago, and after the dinner, my son got extremely sick. I'd like for you to look into this situation and provide an explanation as to how this happened."

This is exactly why I don't answer the phone. I asked what they ate, and he said that his son and another guest had had the same entrée, though the other guest had no issues. I promised to look into it and call him back. I didn't really have a plan—I just wanted to get off the phone quickly and think about my next move.

We had been open for 10 months, with nary a word about any guest getting sick. In the back of my mind I knew the time would come when we would get a food-poisoning complaint—when you're serving over a hundred meals a day, someone's bound to get sick. But l never gave thought to a systematic response.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), "[S]ymptoms from the most common types of food poisoning generally start within 2 - 6 hours of eating the food. That time may be longer (even a number of days) or shorter, depending on the cause of the food poisoning." The cause can possibly be determined through blood tests, testing the leftover food, or examining your, um, leftovers. And yet according to the NCBI, "Even if you have food poisoning ... these tests may not be able to prove it."

I consulted with Chef, who asked the obvious question: "Did anyone else call and complain about getting sick?" Nope. Chef was clearly concerned, but we follow all the food-safety protocols. Typically there's no way to know for certain the origin of food contamination, especially if it's a single incident. Regardless, I was left with no real explanation as to how the guest's son had gotten sick, or if, in fact, it was our fault. It was time to return the call and do a little tap-dancing.

I called back the next day and explained that we hadn't had any other complaints of food poisoning the day he had dined, or any other night. This was not good enough: "It was definitely your restaurant's fault, because he had a light meal earlier in the day with no issues. And I can't believe that you didn't find anything in the kitchen." I started to think that this guy had watched too much CSI, expecting us to close the restaurant, yellow-tape the area, and have professionals swab the entire kitchen. I reminded him that another guest had had the same entrée without any issues and he dismissed this fact, continuing, "It's obvious from what happened that your restaurant is to blame. This pretty much ruined our evening. I'm thinking that I should contact the health department also."

OK, this is the part that really pissed me off. I had taken the fact that this guy accused us of food poisoning. I had swallowed the suggestion that we ruined this family's evening. But to then threaten me was way out of line. So how did I respond?

"Sir, I'm so sorry that this all happened. What can I do to make it up to you and your family?" I could feel my backbone turning to jelly.

"How about comping the meal?" Aha! We had finally gotten to the point of this whole exercise. By then I had spent way too much time dealing with this. I had to clean this mess up and move on. So I suggested that I comp the offending entrée (which would have been $17), but he took it a step further. "Well, our bill was about $220; it's fair that you comp a fourth of the meal since you did make our son sick." My lip probably started bleeding from me biting it so hard. "Sir, that shouldn't be a problem at all. Let me call you back once again." I wanted to discuss this with Chef, who agreed that comping $50 was an appropriate solution.

I called back yet again, happy to check this off my to-do list. For fun, I also recommended that we call the health department together so we could document the complaint. "Oh no no, that won't be necessary. My son's feeling better." There you have it: Fifty dollars bought this guy off. Why didn't I just offer that when he first called? "Oh, your son got food poisoning? How about 50 bucks?"

Alvin Leung, a Michelin-starred chef at Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, recently told me that even the best restaurants are susceptible to food poisoning. In January and February of 2009, over 500 guests at England's Fat Duck (rated amongst the best restaurants in the world) contracted food poisoning from shellfish that had been contaminated with a norovirus. Leung added, "If you have a situation where it's only the one diner that got sick after eating at your restaurant, what are you supposed to do? How are you so sure it was at my restaurant? If you think it's from us, then sure, I'll buy you a meal for next time or comp your meal this time. But how do you ever know?"

All I know is that I don't ever want a guest shaking the restaurant down for money again. I do want to know if someone gets sick, because if it turns out that it's not an isolated incident, we have problems to solve, and fast. But I don't think I would change how I handled this situation, other than getting to a solution faster. We've been open for over a year now, and this is still the only complaint of food poisoning that we've received. The fact that guests most likely can't prove we're culpable for their sickness also means that we can't prove that we weren't the cause of it. In my book, $50 is a suitable compromise. My takeaway from this episode? Don't answer the phone again.