Mouse in the Salad

A few months ago I was playing backgammon with Stephen Dubner when we saw something that was so repulsive it almost made me throw up right on the spot. And I thought Dubner was going to pass out because I’ve seen him do that before in situations that other people might just label “gross” and walk away.

Here’s the thing about Dubner. He wrote Freakonomics which catapulted him to success. And I think its a great book. I wrote about it here ( The 5 reasons Freakonomics was a bestseller). But here’s the reality: I think he’s a world-class writer with his other books. “Confessions of  a Hero Worshipper” is one of my all-time favorites.

I hope Stephen eventually writes more books like that. I might’ve even been telling him this (lecturing the best selling writer on writing) while we were eating at Le Pain Quotidien on the upper west side and playing backgammon. He might have even been beating me in that particular moment so the interruption was welcome. Beating me at a game is almost an unforgivable sin but every now and then he gets away with it.

Suddenly, we had to stop the game.

The woman at the table next to us started in with a combination of screaming and crying. It was one of those horrible animal sounds when all the animals around sense something is very very wrong and look over.

Here’s what was wrong: [Don’t scroll down if you can’t take it]


There was a dead mouse in her salad. She moved it from the salad to a bowl. I walked over there and asked her if I could take a picture so she could have it in case she needed it for anything.

I was being nice and she thanked me profusely but my real motive is exactly what you are seeing here: I wanted to write a blog post about it. I play a humanitarian on TV.

Le Pain Quotidien is a great chain of healthy restaurants. But its growing fast. When a company grows fast things (mice) literally slip through the cracks. Stephen did a radio show about the situation a few weeks ago. I said on the show:  A lot of things have to go wrong in order for that mouse to get there.

Its not a simple mistake. A bag of salad had to be left open in a kitchen, unobserved. A mouse had to crawl into it. The salad had to be then shut. The mouse then died. At some point in the future the salad was removed from storage and opened. A hand reached into the bag and didn’t watch what it was doing. It pulled out a bunch of lettuce, and one dead mouse, and put it on a woman’s plate. All unnoticed.

Things happen from the top down. Its not the waiter’s fault. Or the guy in the kitchen’s fault. Or the manager’s. Somewhere near the top of a fast growing company, an executive can’t handle the growth, and doesn’t put the structure in place for a mouse to sneak into the salad bag.

This happens with every company on the planet. A mouse in the salad means congrats, you are growing. But it also means if you can’t handle the growth, you’re about to die a horrible death. Trapped without oxygen in a salad bag.

[See, 100 Rules Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know]

A waiter had to then take the plate, and still not notice the dead mouse that was on it. It was delivered to the woman. The woman began eating the salad. Until she ate enough lettuce to uncover the mouse, or until she stuck her fork in it and picked it up.

Stephen put on his Freakonomics hat. We didn’t pay our bill and we packed up our backgammon set and began walking out. “Lets let the manager set the price of the bill for us.”

At the door, the manager came up to us. Stephen said, “look, we mostly finished our meal but now we don’t feel so well, given the mouse thing. What do you suggest we pay for this meal?”

Stephen’s theory was that if the manager was good, he would have us pay nothing, even offer us incentives to come back. Stephen’s going to write about this when the radio show comes out so I’ll let him finish off what the manager said. Apparently, in his article he mentioned that some professor disagreed with his approach.

As we were leaving, the woman who found the mouse in her salad came up to me and said, “Thank you! Thank you so much. You are very very kind to help me out here.” No problem, I said, I wanted to help. I would hate to find a mouse in my food. I was actually feeling a gag reflex as I was thinking about it. I think I’m feeling that even right now as I write this.

She was still thanking me. “Its very sweet that you would help us. My friend and I eat here regularly. Maybe we will see you when we eat here again next week.”

What the…?

  • I loved it. We constantly struggle with process… if you put in too much process, you can’t keep up with growth. Not enough and you end up with dead mice in salads.

    Not sure what the solution is here, though, but it’s a potent story to illustrate the danger.

    • clark

      I hit the, “like” button by accident.

      Jay says, “Not sure what the solution is here…”

      The solution is to implement more controls. Self-imposed ones, not state mandated ones. And then boast about those controls, highlight them, flash them, invite People in to see them in action. Or, just be real quiet about it all and follow up to make sure the controls work properly.

      Fighting off the pests of nature, kind of like what my wife wants to do to the chipmunks who have been raiding her tomato patch. Cute, but destructive.

      • It’s not as simple as saying “more controls”. Arbitrarily adding controls creates friction in an environment and you lose momentum.
        Lose too much momentum and you lose the growth. The controls become useless.

        To complicate things, often times the controls you can’t tell if they’re working until too much time elapses. Or worse. If you have an anti-mouse control, you can only say it works if you see no mice.

        Some of those “controls” are the reason why theories like Spontaneous Generation came about…

  • ‘ It was one of those horrible animal sounds when all the animals around sense something is very very wrong’

    haaaa, that line just made my day

    and congratulations, you and your buddy might have killed the restaurant.

    that woman, was she hot? she might just really liked you and didn’t know what to say, it happens :)

  • Yeah, you know, thats a good point.

  • Yeah, you know, thats a good point.

  • Yeah, you know, thats a good point.

  • James

    I have to disagree…It was everyone’s fault.  Most specifically, the chef’s fault who prepared the salad.

    In any event, I reckon the mouse found its way into the salad mix at the manufacturer, died during transport and was put on a plate by an obvious kitchen worker.  Still.  Disgusting and I feel for that woman who would be justified if she never ate salad again.

  • Anonymous

    It might not be the waiter’s fault, or the kitchen’s fault, or the chef’s fault. But they are the ones who are going to get fired, guaranteed. Firing happens from the bottom up.

  • I want to know how Mayor Bloomberg would want the restaurant to count the calories with the addition of the mouse.

    Maybe eating mice is some sort of health food.  Would make me eat less.

  • Keep doing exactly what you are doing, James. You do it so damn well. 

  • I have a hard enough time eating out. I’ve worked in restaurants. I know what happens in a kitchen. And just the stuff that occurs ON PURPOSE is enough to make one ill sometimes. 

    But I never worked in a restaurant that had this problem occur. Yes, mice are a common problem in restaurant kitchens. I stepped on one once in a restaurant kitchen. But it did not get served on a customer’s plate. 

    I disagree though with your assertion that it isn’t the kitchen worker’s fault. They may not have sole responsibility in the incident, but when you reach into a bin full of lettuce and come up with a dead fucking mouse, well, it doesn’t take a great deal of attention to detail to notice something is amiss. He probably has rules regarding how long each salad is supposed to take to get in the window, and yes, that would be a structural issue in which attention to detail was not being rewarded. But a dead mouse? He’s fired. And, he kinda deserved to be fired. 

    • I think everyone ended up getting fired actually. There’s this weird feeling right after it happened where I was sort of looking at all the employees and knew they were doomed.

    • Crusader79

      Having worked as a waiter (in D.C.), I know what you mean about ‘ON PURPOSE’. This is one of many reasons why I am happier living in Asia, where employees generally aren’t so ennui-laden as to do horrible things ‘for fun’. But give it another generation, perhaps.

  • Anonymous

    Didn’t you write this article already?

  • John H

    Far better to find a mouse (or even half a mouse) in your salad in NYC then it would be to eat a salad in Germany, not seeing the e coli, and end up dead or on dialysis for the rest of your life.

  • Buzz McCool

    I think I heard this on Stephen’s Marketplace radio segment already, perhaps this past Friday?

    • Yeah, I waited until he put it on the radio before putting this out there. That way he got to deal with any unknown issues that popped up along the way.

  • Tzipporah

    “My friend and I eat here regularly. Maybe we will see you when we eat here again next week.”

    And unfortunately, this is where economists fail. People are not rational, and no amount of free lunch will make them so.

  • and good luck tell the cat to only go after the mice and not the chicken on the dinner plate

    • Davi Assumpção

      Schrödinger’s: the chicken could be Dubner’s rancid chicken – from his blog post.

  • Tzipporah

    The sad truth is that the end result of the “process” in fast growth is regulations that place all the burden on low-paid, end-worker decision making – responsibility without authority. The kind of stuff that makes a fast-growing chain a place that sucks to work at. 

    When I was a teenager, I had a summer job at a big Northeastern ice cream and hamburger place. Ice cream cones were supposed to have 4 oz. of ice cream in them, but were we given scoops that measured exactly 4 oz.? Of course not. One day, the regional manager comes in and orders a meal, including ice cream. He thought I gave him too much. So, a parade to a scale in the back with him and my supervisor – it weight EXACTLY 4.0 oz. Still the best “screw you!” work moment I’ve ever had.

  • this story would have been much more inspiring if SOMEBODY stood up immediately and said ‘sorry, i fuck up, it’s all my fault, i take full responsibility’, i still haven’t heard that yet including that leader CEO.

  • Ubernaut

    the segment aired on marketplace last week i forget what the manager said i think he said it was free but not sure. i do remember a main point of the story was that the lady was going back to the restaurant because she was enamored with the idea of organic food and that she felt that the mouse actually somehow proved the organic-ness of the restaurant. or at least that was my takeaway.

  • jadoube

    Key question: Was the mouse French?

    (Favorite animated film: Ratatouille).

  • To all those who are saying it was the fault of the chef et. al. you are missing the point. Of course everyone involved was to blame, but that would not be a lesson in management. The point is that a business owner should put processes in place to ensure this kind of thing does not ever happen. If this kind of thing were to cause enough negative publicity to cause the business to fail I can assure you the business owner would be the one to see the most financial harm. So ultimately it *is* the business owner’s fault since he or she set up the processes and he or she hired the people. 

    • Minnie

      I blame the mouse

      • That’s mighty honorable of you.   

        But was it Mickey?

    • clark

      “a business owner should put processes in place to ensure this kind of thing does not ever happen.”

      Auditors call those, controls.

  • Logan Gray

    Mistakes happen.  Learn from them!  Make corrective procedures to prevent them from happening again.  Breathe in, breathe out, move on.

  • Adnan

    I used to work at a restaurant close to Port Authority and one day i found a dead mouse in one of the steam trays that are used to keep the food  warm before opening the restaurant. One of the guys from the kitchen came to give me the salad tray and i told him about the dead mouse. Without any hesitation he picked the tongs out of the salad and was about to use them to pick the dead mouse when i told him to stop. I used  disposable spoons to get rid of it but i was amazed at the indifference with which the kitchen staff usually deals with such issues.
    In the case of the post i guess it could very well have been the indifferent attitude of the kitchen staff that got the dead mouse on the customer’s plate.

  • TJ

    I would have liked the story much better if:  the guest had eaten the mouse and asked for the manager, explaining to him what a wonderful salad she had just enjoyed and she would be extremely happy to come back later that night with all her friends, who are also from China, hoping to enjoy the same exquisite dish.  Complements to the Chef!!

  • Optimistic lol

  • Davi Assumpção

    That’s a very interesting point you got there. We’re experiencing those rats in the salad for a while now…

    Out of subject: was surfing around this Brazilian – where I’m from – bookstore’s website and searched for any of your books.
    They have some of them!!! “Trade Like Warren Buffet”  is currently priced R$ 137,20 – something around US$ 84,00. Too expensive? Been worse: the price dropped from R$ 152,46.

  • James this is so gross!!!!!!!!!!!  Maybe the Groupon special though?

  • Anonymous

    And you couldn’t have told it from the poor deceased mouse’s point of view?

    -Bravely, furtively, hopping and skittering to avoid the giants… Winning on to the prize of a full belly and sleeping the sleep of the well-fed… Only to end up suffocating alone and scared in a plastic container.

    Ah, forget it. It was gross and several somebodies deserved to be summarily sacked.


  • Vivek

    Add a disclamer: “Please read this one on an empty stomach”

  • Fleurystyle

    Keep it up James Altucher. Just like Letterman made people popular, CNBC will make you. I’d rather hear you when I’m ending my trading day than any other Roubini type. One day we will turn arround and realize, wow the dow’s at 20 thousand. Buy low sell high.

  • Anonymous

    Valar mousehgulis

  • mousekateer

    that woman is desperate for a man in her life.  She was hitting on you James…her Knight saved her.  No wonder you have so much trouble with women, can’t you even sniff the slightest positive vibe from awoman to you?

  • Eew.

  • Kevin M

    Plus she’ll probably be eating there for free the rest of her life.

  • Kevin M

    I saw a live mouse scurrying along under a table – eventually ending up behind the Golden Tee machine at Buffalo Wild Wings one time. Quietly alerted the manager who was changing the TV nearby and he bought us a round. That was bad enough, can’t even imagine finding one IN my food. What an interesting life you lead, James.

  • Epomadewoman

    When a rat scurried across the floor at my favorite Thai restaurant, the waiter didn’t blink, didn’t look shocked or surprised, and looked in fact like he and the rat were acquaintances, I didn’t just complain to management.  I complained to the county Dept of Health.  They paid a visit to the restaurant and confirmed my “observation”.  They shut the restaurant down until they took care of their “problem”.  It took 2 days for the place to be open again to the public.  I don’t think I would have ever eaten there again, if I hadn’t had a call back from the DoH that the place had been cleaned up.

  • Anonymous

    Someone killed Remy from Ratatouille! Now, who is going to cook?

  • guest

    Not healthy actually, they serve a lot of bread with sugar (jam/jelly).

  • John

    Nonsense. How can a chef prepare a salad and have a MOUSE get by their eyes?  Ingredients shoud ne laid out, almost leaf by leaf. Lettuce is not something you shoud be “pouring” into a bowl. Unless you’re Le Pan Quotidien. The author overrates this restaurant, whose bread is the best I’ve had but whose owners have a true identity crisis about their company.

  • Okay WTF? See you next week….I’m still gagging. Just like the fly that died in my salad mix from Walmart I hate those things. Mice in salad are okay, but marijuana is illegal, if I was high I wouldn’t of cared…

  • I feel a lot more people need to read this, very good info!

  • Matthew

    Went to lunch at a sandwich shop in SF once…bit down on the sandwich and a piece of blue something was in my mouth. Went to the counter and the color of finger nails of the person behind the counter perfectly matched the piece of finger nail I was now holding in my hand. “No – I don’t think I’m hungry now, just refund my money please…”