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What Restaurants Do When There's a
 Fly (or Finger) in the Soup
By Charles Storch, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Apr. 29, 2005 - Anna Ayala of Wendy's infamy isn't the only one with an I-found-something-revolting-in-my-bowl-of-chili story. Chicago restaurateur Dan Rosenthal has one too.

Many years ago while working in a hotel, Rosenthal said, he spooned some commissary chili into his mouth and found he was chewing and chewing on a large Band-Aid, apparently left behind by a kitchen worker. He shrugged it off as a food-service mishap -- c'est la viande -- and didn't make a fuss.

But Rosenthal, president of a group that owns the Trattoria No. 10 restaurant and Sopraffina Marketcaffes in Chicago, is sympathetic when diners complain about finding foreign material in their food. "I've been there and done that," he said. "It's not a fun experience."

Before her arrest on a hoax-related charge, Ayala claimed to have found a finger in her chili bowl at Wendy's. In another recent incident, an Ohio man claimed to have found a flap of human skin in an Arby's chicken sandwich.

Rosenthal said his restaurants have never fielded claims so extreme. It gets more of the garden variety -- insects in the produce. He said Sopraffina goes through some 2.4 million heads of romaine a year, and as much as the staff tries to clean the leaves, there will be some complaints when bugs are discovered on plates.

How are restaurants supposed to handle such complaints? Sometimes with skepticism -- angling for a free meal by tampering with a dish is an old dodge -- but mostly with great care.

Rosenthal said his restaurants have no set policy on dealing with complaints, but they may replace the tainted item, waive the tab and/or offer a gift certificate. In cases in which customers stalk out and threaten to sue, managers are supposed to fill out accident reports and turn over complaints to the carrier of the restaurant's liability insurance.

Last year, Restaurant Insurance Corp., a Colorado-based insurer of some 3,000 fine-dining and family-style restaurant locations around the country, reported that 2,332 general liability claims were filed with the firm from 2002 to fall 2004. Of those, 765, or 33 percent, involved patrons biting or swallowing foreign substances. It said the average claim paid was $1,802.

Dan Knise, an executive vice president of the carrier, said most such claims are valid and involve people seeking to have their dental or other expenses covered.

He said his company advises restaurants to make sure complainants are all right and help them if they need medical treatment. He said managers should save the food portion that may have caused the incident -- letting it go out the door with the patron breaks the chain of evidence -- and preserve the supply of that food in the backroom. He said if the supply is tainted but tossed, then the restaurant may not be able to pass along the liability to the supplier.

He also advises eateries to file the names of complainants in their own or shared databases so they can check when someone is making repeat claims.

Colleen McShane, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said her trade group sends out alerts to members when suspicious complaints surface.

She said that about a year ago, a member faxed her a letter from someone who had claimed to have dined in the restaurant and discovered afterward that clothing had been soiled by a waiter. The restaurant was asked to cover the dry cleaning bill.

McShane said she discovered other restaurants had received similar letters from the same person, so she sent out a general alert about an old game she called the "cleaners fraud."


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