The carrot was dangled: Fig & Olive president Greg Galy would give an exclusive interview to talk about “all the recent news regarding the restaurant.” It would be Galy’s first media interview since dozens of people were sickened in August and September after dining at Fig & Olive locations in Washington and West Hollywood, Calif.
During the course of the interview with Galy, though, it became clear the “recent news” would be limited to the reporting of Washington City Paper’s Jessica Sidman, who filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the D.C. Department of Health to understand better why and how diners were exposed to the potentially lethal bacteria.
(Incidentally, the D.C. Department of Health forwarded the latest statistics on its investigation of the Fig & Olive location at CityCenterDC: As of Tuesday, DOH has “confirmed 41 cases of salmonella tied back to the DC Fig and Olive establishment. To date, DOH has interviewed 226 persons.” The department has also visited the restaurant eight times since it reopened in mid-September to, among other things, ensure the operation is complying with food code regulations and the “approved Risk Control Plan submitted by Fig and Olive on Monday September 14,” a DOH spokesman noted.)
In recent days, City Paper’s Sidman has reported that the chain’s New York-based commissary has supplied Fig & Olive restaurants “with nearly 200 dish components, including soups, sauces, purees, dressings, desserts, breads, ratatouille, ravioli, crab cakes, pre-cooked chicken tagine, pre-cooked paella, and more.”
She also reported that Fig & Olive relies on a “frozen mushroom croquette mix” from the commissary; uses Hellmann’s mayonnaise in its truffle olive oil aioli; and has jacked up menu prices since reopening on Sept. 16 after DOH shut it down for critical health-code violations.
Sidman’s dogged reporting has been picked up and repeated by numerous media outlets, including NBC Chicago, Food & Wine‘s millennial offshoot, Los Angeles magazine and Eater LA. It’s been a 20-car PR pile-up for Fig & Olive, which quickly sent out a statement explaining its use of the commissary. (Food Safety News, among other outlets, ran the statement at the bottom of their reports.)
Galy echoed much of the statement in our conference-call interview, which runs below in edited form.
Greg Galy: The [200-item] recipe list provided to the Health Department in D.C. was an exhaustive list of all production items that were made at the commissary for New York City [restaurants] and occasionally and selectively [restaurants] nationwide. It’s the recipe list for the production items of the commissary and in-house production, meaning at the unit level.
Tim Carman: Meaning what?
GG: At the unit level, by each location. This is an extensive recipe book. In the recent article, [Sidman] meant to show this entire list as if the commissary was producing all those items to be sent nationwide. Which is not true. It does not mean all those items were shipped nationwide.
TC: So how many were shipped to D.C.? The City Paper article mentions 200 items. How many of those were actually shipped to Los Angeles or D.C.?
GG: I don’t have the exact count now. But as I mentioned, the vast majority are dressings, tapenades and purees.
TC: I think it would behoove you to put a number on it because right now people think that 200 items were shipped to all locations. I understand you’re saying it’s just the purees, tapenades and dressings. But if you can give a ballpark figure of how many that actually is. . .
GG: Let me. . . [There is a sound of papers being shuffled.]
Spokeswoman Aba Kwawu: Greg, do you want to send that back to Tim?
GG: Exactly. I don’t want to say something that isn’t accurate.
AK: We’ll get the number for you.
TC: According to Jessica’s reporting, New York state officials went to the commissary and it’s no longer functioning. Does that mean it’s been shut down or have you just moved operations?
GG: It was shut down. The commissary was shut down before the investigation. Why did we close the commissary and why did we resume food preparation in-house extensively? We actually accelerated the closing of the commissary to September because we have a new corporate chef that helped us streamline the process, to ensure that we were able to create the dressings, the purees and the tapenades in-house. The new executive chef was, in fact, hired back in July to help transition some of the production and preparation items made in the commissary to each units. So today, all the foods are produced in-house.
TC: So there’s no commissary producing any items for Fig & Olive restaurants?
GG: Nope, not at all.
TC: Did you shut it down in reaction to the salmonella cases?
GG: No. As I mentioned, it was, in fact, in collaboration with the new executive chef. What Fig & Olive was 10 years ago at the time is definitely not what it is today. The standard of hiring and recruiting has enabled us to have a stronger chef than 10 years ago. That’s why we’re able to close the commissary that was, in fact, not necessary anymore.
TC: Who is the chef you hired?
GG: Wilfrid Hocquet.
TC: If I’m understanding you correctly, Fig & Olive was headed toward shutting down the commissary even before the salmonella outbreak?
TC: Did you figure out if the salmonella cases were tied to commissary products?
GG: I’m very sorry, but I can answer anything regarding recent events, but anything related to salmonella is tied to litigation that are currently in process.
TC: Let me ask you this: When you started to get calls from customers in late August and early September, did the company know there was something was going on at that point?
GG: Again, I’m very sorry. I can’t answer about timing and anything related to salmonella.
TC: Okay, let me ask you this: When the salmonella cases started to hit the media, is there a reason as a company you decided not to talk?
GG: We decided not to talk based on the pending investigations, and we couldn’t offer any comments to the press.
TC: Can you give me a sense of what you did, and what you were doing at each restaurant to deal with this problem?
GG: There hasn’t been anything related to salmonella in the ingredients. [Note: Investigators haven’t been able to trace the salmonella to any Fig & Olive ingredient.] They haven’t been able to find traces definitively. We still don’t know to this day exactly what happened. We took all measures and precaution at the time, I believe, to resolve what needed to be done. Again, I can’t really expand my comments on anything related to the process, the timing, the salmonella cases.
TC: Did you ever consider at any point closing down the restaurant after all this?
GG: No. No, I think. . .
AK: Can you just clarify the question. Do you mean the D.C. restaurant?
TC: Yeah, closing the D.C. restaurant after the cases popped up.
AK: For good or just temporarily?
TC: For good.
GG: No, Fig & Olive is really attached to top-quality standards and consistency. We didn’t think about closing the restaurants at any point.
TC: Okay. [I pause to review my questions.]
GG: Just to go over some of the allegations that were made in Washington City Paper. Is it true the restaurant croquettes are frozen? Yes, the croquettes actually need to be frozen regardless of where they are prepared in order to be shaped and fried, due to the nature of the béchamel. It’s part of the preparation and cooking process.
Relating also to some comments that were made regarding proteins that could be frozen at the commissary and sent nationwide. This is not the case. We are not freezing any product at the commissary or in-house. The only item that we are freezing are the products that require it for the preparation.
In regards to the comments that was made on the Hellmann’s mayonnaise, the mayonnaise made in-house [uses Hellmann’s] because of the safety concerns of utilizing raw eggs. That’s why they’re using a commercial mayonnaise. It’s actually recommended by safety consultants.
TC: Obviously, the City Paper did a lot of this investigative work. How come you didn’t want to talk to them about this?
GG: I don’t think they are a preferable source of information. We definitely prefer talking to you directly as we feel there is a lot more objectivity.
TC: Given that some of the products came from the commissary, do you feel there is integrity in marketing Fig & Olive as fresh, seasonal and in the southern French tradition? Given some ingredients were coming from the commissary, were you living up to those standards?
GG: We stand by our commitment to customers to produce a quality, consistent and enjoyable dining experience. We work very closely with all our vendors to ensure freshness and consistent quality. As you can see on our menu, over the years, we have developed strong relationships with local farms for produce, especially in the California market. In D.C., [we use] Spring Valley, Parker Farm, Crown Orchards to name a few of those farms. We work also with vendors that we’ve been working with for the past 10 years, such as D’Artagnan, which is one of the most reputable vendors in the country for meat.
TC: What do you buy from Spring Valley?
GG: That’s something I need to look up. I couldn’t name all the ingredients.
AK: I’ll give you a listing and perhaps some of the items. [Note: The list of vendors sent did not include ingredients.]
TC: You must have seen it, but City Paper had a story about the increased prices at Fig & Olive. Was this tied at all to having to deal with the salmonella outbreak?
GG: No, it’s really not a surprise. In the restaurant world, price increases are primarily driven by labor costs. There’s a strong increase in labor costs across the country. It hasn’t happened in D.C. yet but in New York, there’s a 50 percent increase and in L.A., it’s going to $15 an hour in a few years. That will be the major impact on prices.
TC: Are you saying that part of this increase is tied to future labor costs and cities that are going toward higher wages?
GG: Correct. Even if there’s no major impact in D.C. today, there is talk that there will be changes in the coming years. So, yes, the price increase is driven primarily by labor costs and changes in labor laws.
TC: Coming so quickly after the outbreak, did you consider the optics of this price increase?
GG: The optics?
TC: The public perception? How it might look bad if you increase prices so quickly after the outbreak?
GG: Not really. We didn’t think about it as a business. We had no other choice but increasing prices to remain a business that’s generating a positive outcome and [remaining] profitable.
TC: For the people who were victims, have you compensated them at all?
GG: We have. . . But I wouldn’t comment on that, really.
TC: Because there are still outstanding lawsuits. . .
GG: You said for some? Could you repeat the question, please?
TC: Some of the victims have sued, and then some have not. . .
GG: I’m sorry. I did not understand the question. So, no, I can’t answer that question.
TC: You were saying that for some victims, they have been compensated. Is that correct?
GG: No, I didn’t say that. I didn’t understand the question.
TC: So the question is then, have you compensated any of the victims?
GG: I can’t comment on those specifics. Again, it’s attached to pending investigations. Thank you for understanding.
TC: Has any of this affected your business? Did you see a decrease in business when you reopened?
GG: We’ve seen a negative impact, I guess, related to all the press. Yes, it negatively impacted the business. But we’re doing all that’s necessary to bring back the business to where it needs to be.
TC: Can you give a percentage of how much revenue went down?
AK: I don’t think we can give the specific percentage, correct?
TC: Just sort of ballpark? How much it affected the business?
GG: I couldn’t say. Let me look it over, and again I can provide you with this information. [Note: The information was not forthcoming, despite multiple requests via email.]
TC: Okay. What else did you want to add to this conversation?
GG: First of all, I’d like to thank you for this opportunity. I hope I answered some of your questions, and I’m sorry if I couldn’t answer others. I’d like to thank our employees, if that can be shared. I’d like to thank our employees and customers for continuing to believe in our grand vision and for their continued patronage. I apologize to our guests for being subjected to any misrepresentation by the media.
TC: You apologize for what?
GG: To our guests for being subjected to any misrepresentation by the media.
TC: To being subjected to any misrepresentations by the media?
GG: Yes. As we conclude this interview, I’d like to take also the opportunity to wish our guests a happy holiday and a safe holiday season. We look forward to continue serving those guests in 2016.
TC: Do you apologize to the people who got sick?
GG: I apologize to our guests for being subjected to any misrepresentation by the media.
TC: I heard you say that.
GG: Again, I can’t comment to anything related to salmonella. I’m very sorry.
TC: Are you afraid that if you apologize to victims that makes you liable?
AK: Excuse me just one moment. Tim, did you receive the letter that Greg personally wrote as soon as that news broke in September?
TC: I think you sent that to me. (In fact, the statement was partly included in The Post’s Sept. 16 story, including this line from Galy: “We are truly sorry that this happened.”)
AK: Okay, I’ll resend that to you because he did address what had been done, steps that had been taken immediately following. Though I can’t speak for them, I was actually impressed with his heartfelt and sincere efforts.
TC: Anything else you want to add?
GG: No, I think that will be it.