City Paper is not for tourists
Fig & Olive sounds like a nightclub. It’s 6:30 p.m.
St. Tropez-inspired beats pound over the chattering of a stylish crowd in suits, leather jackets, and high heels. The Crate & Barrel-esque lounge at the CityCenterDC restaurant is packed. Even more people, martini glasses in tow, hover around the edges of the 25-seat, U-shaped bar.
What salmonella? On this recent Thursday, it’s as if the widely reported outbreak that sickened and hospitalized diners here in early September never happened.
Bar plans foiled, I ask about a table for two.
“We’re fully committed to reservations right now,” says the hostess.
I ask about the wait. She looks at her computer screen and contorts her face in all sorts of unpromising ways.
My husband and I wander around CityCenterDC for a bit. Centrolina, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, DBGB Kitchen and Bar, and Mango Tree all have seats available.
Forty-five minutes pass. No word from Fig & Olive. An additional 45 minutes pass. Still no word. We head back to check on the status of our table. Without explanation, the hostess fidgets with her computer some more, then finally leads us to the crowded dining room upstairs.
During the first few minutes of our dinner, the couple next to us sends an order of roasted potatoes back to the kitchen. Four women on our other side wait at least 10 minutes before the server even greets their table.
At our table, empty water glasses go unfilled for long stretches, and the staff fails to take away the appetizer plates before plopping the entrees on the table. Our server, though friendly, forgets my husband’s beer. Only after the main course arrives does he acknowledge the error and offer to remove the drink from the check. Even then, it’s not until our meal is nearly over that the beer actually arrives. It’s warm. The chicken is dried out, and the paella is fine but unmemorable. Our total for two appetizers and two entrees comes to $113.60 with tax and tip.
On the way out, I spot one of the cast members from The Real Housewives of D.C.
It’s hard to say whether all these diners are very forgiving or merely ignorant of the salmonella outbreak that shut down the restaurant. As of Oct. 23, the D.C. Department of Health had confirmed 34 cases of the bacterial infection, which causes diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. It can be fatal. The agency interviewed an additional 209 people who dined at the establishment and reported illnesses—and that’s just in D.C. Fig & Olive also allegedly infected diners at its restaurants in West Hollywood and possibly New York, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to open a multi-state investigation into the restaurant chain.
Foodborne salmonella outbreaks are infrequent. This is only the fifth documented outbreak in D.C. in five years, according to DOH.
If the outbreak began with Fig & Olive, it now appears that some of these most recent salmonella cases could have been avoided: A hospital notified the D.C. Department of Health that multiple Fig & Olive diners had been sickened two days before health officials actually shut down the restaurant. In the interim, more people reported becoming ill. Some also alerted Fig & Olive to their food poisoning days before it was shut down. It’s unclear what the restaurant did to try to fix the problem before the health department intervened. Representatives for Fig & Olive declined to comment for this story.
In the aftermath of the outbreak, four local victims have filed lawsuits against Fig & Olive, with additional lawsuits coming out of California. One lawyer says he has as many as two dozen more coming; another says he has about 15 more clients.
A CDC spokesperson says the agency hasn’t identified the exact source of the infections. The D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences tested 84 environmental and food samples. So far, none have tested positive for salmonella, although it’s rare to isolate a particular ingredient in an outbreak. Health department officials say the common denominators among Fig & Olive’s victims include truffle mushroom croquettes and truffle fries. The restaurant has since removed all dishes with truffle oil from its menu.
Elizabeth Lowe’s pain was debilitating. The international trade attorney and a colleague hosted a client for dinner at Fig & Olive on Monday, Aug. 31, and within 48 hours, her stomach felt horrific. “My epidural stopped working during the middle of labor, and this was way worse than that,” says the now-32-year-old. “I was having gastrointestinal issues between 30 and 40 times a day.” Her fever spiked up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and her night sweats were so bad that she would wake up soaking wet. She couldn’t eat anything and had a hard time drinking as well.
By Friday of that week, Lowe sought treatment at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, but doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. They sent her home with some Percocet, which didn’t do much, and told her to come back after Labor Day weekend.
After the weekend, Lowe went back and saw a gastroenterologist who wanted to admit her to the hospital to run more tests. But after waiting for almost the entire day, she decided instead to go to Sibley Memorial Hospital, where she spent the night. In the morning, she met with another gastroenterologist, whose first question was whether she had eaten out in the past week. Lowe told her she’d been to Fig & Olive. “She said, ‘You have salmonella… I’ve got three other people here who ate at Fig & Olive and had the exact same symptoms.’”
All told, Lowe was hospitalized for four days. She was really sick for three weeks, she says, and it took another week to fully recover. She missed three weeks of work. Her husband also had to take time off work to take care of their daughter. “It’s difficult to explain to your two-year-old why mommy couldn’t get out of bed,” she says. Now, she’s suing Fig & Olive for $75,000.
Sibley ultimately ended up treating a total of eight confirmed cases of salmonella. The hospital first contacted the health department’s Center for Policy, Planning, and Evaluation on Sept. 8. That same evening, another Fig & Olive customer contacted the health department’s Food Safety and Hygiene Inspection Services Division about gastrointestinal symptoms he was experiencing after eating at the restaurant a week prior. The two divisions did not communicate at that time.
In response to the customer’s complaint, DOH sent an inspector to check out the restaurant the next day, Sept. 9. What the inspector found was not a pristine kitchen. In fact, the restaurant was nearly shut down for a number of other health code violations.
The inspector found ten critical and six noncritical violations: Employees were not frequently washing hands or changing gloves between tasks while preparing and serving food. The temperature of the water in the hand washing sinks was not as hot as it was required to be. The prep table and other food contact surfaces as well as a rusty can opener were unclean. Wiping cloths were not stored in a sanitizing solution bucket. Some cold food items were not stored at the proper temperatures. The ice box had visible mold. Flies were found in the kitchen and at the bar. And the restaurant had no written employee health policy for the prevention of foodborne illnesses—an infraction that the health department first noted before the restaurant’s June opening.
Despite all of this, the restaurant was able to correct five of the 10 critical violations to the health department’s satisfaction, which meant it could stay open. It takes six critical violations that cannot be corrected on site for the health department to automatically suspend a restaurant’s operations—Fig & Olive was just one shy.
That same day, CPPE, the division of the health department that the hospital had contacted, began conducting patient interviews. DOH spokesperson Marcus Williams says that as a result of a “communication lag” between the two divisions, it wasn’t until after the visit to Fig & Olive that the inspection arm of the health agency was informed of the hospitalizations.
That evening, the Washington Post reported that several people had been hospitalized with salmonella-like symptoms that appeared to be linked to Fig & Olive. The restaurant’s VP of Food & Beverage Fabien Guardiola claimed nothing was wrong. “This morning the health department conducted a full inspection of our premises,” he told the Post. “We are not aware of any violation or risk found.” (Guardiola did not respond to City Paper’s request for comment.) General Manager Ian Kitzmiller likewise told the Post that the restaurant had gone through all its products and food-handling procedures and “there were no issues.”
The next day, Sept. 10, health inspectors returned to Fig & Olive. This time, they suspended the restaurant’s operations, citing 14 cases of foodborne infections linked to Fig & Olive, two of which were confirmed to be salmonella. In addition, they still found mold in the ice machine, flies, cutting boards that needed to be replaced, uncovered containers of potentially hazardous food items, and other violations.
Williams says two of the confirmed salmonella victims and an additional 31 suspected victims reported eating at Fig & Olive on Sept. 8 and 9.
Meghan Milloy was one of them. The 28-year-old, who works for the American Action Forum, and a group of about nine other women arrived at Fig & Olive on Sept. 9 around 7 p.m. for a friend’s birthday dinner. They started with drinks at the bar, then headed upstairs for dinner. They shared crostini, and Milloy ordered the truffle risotto.
Milloy soon after learned about the salmonella scare from a news story shared on Twitter. Her friend with the birthday had sent out an email thanking everyone for coming to dinner. Milloy responded with a screenshot of the article and the message, “Haha, hope no one gets it!”
The next day, Milloy was watching college football on her couch when she started to develop a fever and aches. By the evening, her symptoms were worse. “I was in the bathroom at least every hour, if not more often. That’s including what should have been sleeping hours,” she says. “I stayed home, took a lot of Tylenol, drank a whole lot of Pedialyte and Gatorade, and just kind of dug my heels in and dealt with it.” The brunt of her symptoms lasted for four days and continued several days after that.
Frustrated in the midst of her illness, Milloy emailed the restaurant sarcastically thanking them for her 10-pound weight loss in one week. She never heard back. Milloy is now in touch with an attorney and planning to take legal action against Fig & Olive, although she has not filed a suit yet.
Since the restaurant’s license was restored on Sept. 15, the health department has conducted an additional three inspections. The restaurant continues to have some violations, albeit fewer and less critical ones. During an inspection, on Oct. 9, the establishment had no approved procedures for responding to a contamination due to vomiting or diarrhea. And there was still mold accumulating in the ice machine.
Fig & Olive said that it hired a third-party food safety firm and was cooperating with local health department officials to address the problem. The restaurant also destroyed its entire food inventory during the six days that it was shuttered. “After taking steps to ensure that all food preparation and safety standards were being followed, that food stocks were safe, and all employees had been screened, the restaurant reopened the same day with the Health Department’s approval,” the company said in a statement released to the public on Sept. 25. “We are confident we have adequately addressed the situation. We remain committed to delivering the highest quality food and excellence of preparation and service that is the hallmark of the Fig & Olive brand.”
Josseline De Saint Just doesn’t dine out a lot. The 61-year-old federal employee says she’s the kind of person who prefers to bring her lunch to work. So going to Fig & Olive on Sept. 5 was meant to be a bit of a treat—and not a very cheap one, she notes. Her dining companion got away with cramps, but De Saint Just suffered from diarrhea and excruciating pains. “I had never had pains like this, maybe during delivery when I had my baby. I had a hard labor,” she says. “My belly was extended like when you see these pictures of starving African babies.”
De Saint Just didn’t know what was wrong with her until Sept. 10, five days after she dined at Fig & Olive, when she saw a headline about the salmonella outbreak. That day, she called the restaurant and got a call back from the headquarters in New York. The Fig & Olive representative told her they don’t give refunds, but maybe they could—if she could prove she had gotten sick from the restaurant.
The next day, De Saint Just called a woman who had been quoted in the Washington Post to hear her story. She told De Saint Just that she and her three colleagues, all of whom had gotten sick, received an immediate refund. “I said, ‘So you have to be in the pages of the Washington Post to get a refund?’” De Saint Just did eventually get her money back as well as a $100 gift card. She says she won’t be using it. Instead, she is suing Fig & Olive for $250,000.
De Saint Just also wants answers: “The fact that their service is not that great, is it the same equivalent in the kitchen? Do they cut corners? I want to know what happened, when did they know, and how they can address this so that nobody is at risk.”
At least a couple victims contacted Fig & Olive about food poisoning over Labor Day weekend—several days before the health department intervened. But on Sept. 9, when James Lloyd, another confirmed salmonella victim, contacted Fig & Olive after being discharged from Sibley, the restaurant’s manager told him they had received no other complaints. They said they would follow up with him, but they never did.
“They kind of shrugged it off,” says attorney Salvatore Zambri, who’s representing Lloyd in a lawsuit against Fig & Olive. “It seemed like a nonsensical comment. And if it even were true on his call, the idea that they didn’t follow up with him smacks of callousness.”
Bill Marler, a nationally recognized food-safety lawyer based in Seattle who’s suing the restaurant on behalf of both D.C. and L.A. clients, says to win a case like this, lawyers will have to prove the link between the illnesses and the consumption of the restaurant’s food. For Fig & Olive, Marler expects that will be no problem. “The restaurant is at a major disadvantage to a lawyer like me,” he says. “In many respects, the real question at this point is not if they’re responsible or if they’re liable. It’s how much are they going to pay?”
How much a restaurant pays depends on how sick its victims are. Marler says the payout could be as low as tens of thousands of dollars and as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars per case. “This is not going to be an inexpensive problem for Fig & Olive,” he says.
And while no deaths have been reported in this particular outbreak, some people have lingering health issues. Lloyd, a marathon runner who was in peak physical shape, is still suffering, his lawyer says. He’s seeking $500,000. Meanwhile, Marler says one of his clients in California has developed Reiter’s syndrome, an arthritic condition that can result after a salmonella infection. “Her knees are all swollen up and they’ve had to drain it,” he says. “What happens is the salmonella gets into your bloodstream and then will travel into a joint and then infect the joint.” It can take months to several years to fully recover.
It might seem surprising that a restaurant neighbored by Dior, Hermès, and Louis Vuitton shops could be at the center of all this. But Marler says the places where you might expect to get sick—like fast food chains—have actually become much more sophisticated in dealing with foodborne illnesses. A lot of fast food items are cooked before they even show up at the restaurant, so the chance that a 16-year-old burger flipper’s error sickens a diner is much smaller. In the past decade, Marler says the majority of cases he’s been involved with didn’t revolve around mega chains but independent restaurants where there’s contamination from a raw product or an ill employee.
“Just because a restaurant’s fancy and high-priced doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t poison you,” Marler says.
Gene Grabowski is the guy many companies call when they’re in trouble. Recently, the “crisis guru” and partner in D.C.-based communications firm kglobal worked with Blue Bell Ice Cream to manage the fallout from its listeria outbreak. He says that restaurants hit with food poisoning troubles should avoid looking desperate by discounting food or offering free desserts.
But that’s exactly what Fig & Olive did in the aftermath of its outbreak: It offered diners free dessert.
A PR campaign, Grabowski says, will only go so far. While it works when you’re trying to build excitement for a brand, it’s harder to sell food safety. Grabowski doesn’t necessarily advise that the restaurant issue press releases or seek out interviews, but he says they should still take calls from reporters, giving them straightforward answers to the best of their ability and encouraging them to come in and experience the restaurant themselves. “They should be treating reporters like diners,” he says.
I emailed Fig & Olive’s local PR team, TAA PR, three times over the course of more than a week before a representative even responded with “we’re going to pass on this.” Multiple attempts by phone and email to directly reach Fig & Olive’s in-house marketing and public relations director, Ludovic Barras, were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Fig & Olive’s chef de cuisine Laurence Cohen says he is resigning, although he declined to comment any further until after his last day, Nov. 1.
Maybe none of this ultimately matters for Fig & Olive. The CityCenterDC restaurant is situated in a relatively transient area that draws a lot of tourists and business travelers. And some regulars, frankly, appear not to care.
Grabowski suggests that the best way for Fig & Olive to fully recover is to take a hands-on approach with diners who do come in so that they can build goodwill through word of mouth. The maître d’, manager, or owner should be out front in the restaurant greeting customers and amping up the personal touch. “Unlike a big food company, they can’t do a mass marketing or a mass PR effort. They have to do it by onesies and twosies.”
On this front, Fig & Olive is having mixed results.
Real estate attorney Melissa Nelson was a regular at Fig & Olive before the outbreak, stopping by as often as once a week. The 38-year-old likes the vibe and the fact that it’s a slightly older crowd, not a bunch of millennials.
The salmonella outbreak has not changed any of that. (She did not get sick.) “Right now, it’s got to be the cleanest place in the city,” she says. Plus, she figures this could have happened to any restaurant. “Their reputation around the country at their different restaurants is on the line as well. I know that they took it very seriously.”
So for her birthday, Nelson chose Fig & Olive to celebrate with four friends. Normally, the bar would be several people deep on a Friday evening. However, since the restaurant reopened, she says it’s full but not as busy as it used to be. “There seemed to be more managers running around,” she notes. And the staff was “on top of their game.” She says a manager even brought her a complimentary bottle of Champagne.
Rania Senusi hasn’t found the hospitality quite so charming since the restaurant reopened. The real estate agent, who’d been to Fig & Olive a couple times prior, says she had “literally the worst experience” during a recent visit because her server had “the biggest attitude ever.” She gave the server a $3 tip—something she says she never does. “What I remember about Fig & Olive now is that experience, unfortunately. It’s not even the salmonella.”
Marler, who’s worked on thousands of food poisoning lawsuits over the course of three decades, has found that the restaurants that recover their reputations are those that are very public about what happened, very apologetic, and openly embrace food safety. “If ten is good and one is bad, Fig & Olive has been a one,” he says. “They just really have been pretty quiet about the outbreak.” (To be fair, this is coming from the man who is suing them, although he says how the restaurant handles its PR doesn’t much affect the facts of his case.)
Contrast that to the 1996 E. coli outbreak from Odwalla juice, which killed one child and sickened dozens of others. After issuing a voluntary recall, Odwalla proactively announced it would pay victims’ medical bills, offered daily updates to the press, and introduced new food safety measures. Marler sued them anyway. “Several people in the media were like, ‘Well how come you’re suing them? They’re being so nice!’” The company is now held up as a case study for crisis management.
Mackie Barch, another D.C. salmonella victim, says Fig & Olive should be used as an example of how not to handle a crisis. He and his pregnant wife celebrated their anniversary at the restaurant on Sept. 1. He tested positive for salmonella, but she was fine. When the news first broke, Barch called Fig & Olive and was referred to a woman at the restaurant’s New York office. “She was just super cold,” he says. “It was really very curt and non-sympathetic… It didn’t seem like they could have given two shits to be quite honest.”
Barch is also bothered that the restaurant had diners’ emails and phone numbers in its reservation system but never tried to inform them of the outbreak. “When you have a major health thing going on, you probably should try to contact the people that were dining there to let them know. They were not proactive in any shape or form,” he says. “It seemed like they just tried to stick their head in the sand and ignore it, ignore it. I think to this day, they haven’t done an adequate job of apologizing to people.”
Illustration by Lauren Heneghan