Most people hitting up the McDonald's drive-thru are probably well aware of the fact that their McNuggets are not freshly made on-site, but rather manufactured in a far-off factory and shipped in frozen. But when diners are shelling out $41 for Chilean seabass, they generally expect that there's an actual chef in a real kitchen doing actual cooking.
That apparently isn't the case at Fig & Olive, a swanky Mediterranean restaurant with eight locations that include Washington DC, Chicago, New York's high-dollar Fifth Avenue, and Newport Beach, Calif. Instead, the company produces hundreds of menu components at a central commissary kitchen in Long Island City, N.Y. and ships them refrigerated or frozen to each of its restaurant outposts where they're then heated and served, the Washington City Paper revealed today.
The alt-weekly acquired a copy of the commissary's master recipe book, which offers a telling look at just how much of Fig & Olive's menu comes pre-prepared: Included is everything from avocado-basil tapenade and "carrot puree emulsion" to grilled vegetables and crab cakes. Step one of the restaurant's instructions for preparing a dish of truffle mushroom croquettes instructs cooks to "use frozen mushroom croquette mix" sent in from the commissary; the mix is simply sliced, breaded, deep-fried, and then served with a fancy swoosh of truffle aioli. (Said truffle aioli also comes from the commissary, and is made with Hellman's mayonnaise.)
City Paper's story follows a string of recent bad headlines for Fig & Olive: Back in September the DC location was linked to dozens of cases of salmonella poisoning, and shortly after another salmonella outbreak was traced back to its West Hollywood restaurant. Two similar foodborne illness outbreaks from the same restaurant chain occurring at locations on opposite coasts may have seemed like just an unlucky coincidence to some, but it presumably also raised some flags that encouraged the alt-weekly to start digging into Fig & Olive's food production methods. Also of note, after the company's recent salmonella outbreak operators raised prices on all menu items by $1 to $8.
Unsurprisingly, the story has spurred plenty of social media backlash against Fig & Olive:
@wcp Fig & Olive Garden.— Woody (@FlyDTW) December 15, 2015
Fig & Olive is a Disney villain. https://t.co/H6jbK8mPH8— Annie Lowrey (@AnnieLowrey) December 15, 2015
Pre-cooked frozen risotto shipped in from out of town: - a few bucks at Trader Joe's - $26 at Fig & Olive https://t.co/CcU168rSmL— Zach Rausnitz (@rausnitz) December 15, 2015
It's stories like that Fig & Olive FOIA that make me doubt all restaurants. Other than laziness on my own part, why eat out?— Meg Kuhagen (@megluku) December 15, 2015
But is such outrage justified? It's generally accepted that restaurants operate on razor-thin margins, and with the rising cost of labor it's not exactly a surprise that some companies are finding ways to cut corners. Certainly most restaurants rely on at least some pre-prepared ingredients, and it goes without saying that big national chains like Chili's and Olive Garden serve a plethora of pre-made food items.
But when menus spout verbiage about "seasonality" and sourcing from local farms and offer $33 paella del mar, it's understandable that customers — however misinformed — expect their food to be scratch-made. Nonetheless, it appears plenty of diners were successfully duped: Nearly 10 percent of the 1,600-plus Yelp reviews for Fig & Olive's West Hollywood location mention the word "fresh."
UPDATE 12/15, 9:37 p.m.: Reached by Eater for comment, a rep for Fig & Olive says the company's restaurants are now preparing all food in-house:
Commissaries are routinely used by upscale restaurant groups that serve a high volume of customers to ensure consistency in food quality and service. We had a commissary that was utilized for specific items by our New York outposts and selectively nationwide, which we closed in September 2015. The vast majority of ingredients served at our restaurants are locally sourced from vendors and farms. Currently all of our dishes are prepared in house at each location.
UPDATE 12/17, 2:29 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect a new report from Washington City Paper which states that Fig & Olive raised prices just after its salmonella scare.
UPDATE 12/17, 2:29 p.m.: Fig & Olive has submitted a lengthy statement addressing Washington City Paper's allegations. It is included herein in full:
Factual Information Clarifying Issues Raised by the Washington City Paper Company statement:
"FIG & OLIVE prides itself on always providing our guests with exceptional food using top quality ingredients. Under no circumstances, would we ever serve a substandard product or mislead the public or our guests in any way. Our brand is steeped in the Mediterranean heritage of the South of France. The philosophy was developed ten years ago and we stand by our commitment to our customers to produce a high-quality, consistent and exceptional dining experience."
- As has been reported, we closed our commissary in September. We now prepare all of our food at each of our locations. Importantly, the quality of our food remains unchanged.
- Since 2010, as we expanded and opened more locations, Fig & Olive opened a commissary to streamline preparation.
- We used a local commissary to service our New York restaurants for quality control and consistency. As we expanded, it was also used to ship select products nationwide.
- It was always the company's intention to close the commissary as we ramped up our in-house food preparation capabilities. Recently, our new corporate executive chef has taken the lead in streamlining our food preparation process to ensure that we are able to create all sauces, dressings, etc. in house. In addition, we have reduced the number of menu items and made additional changes in offerings, and, at the same time, we have intensified the training of our chef de cuisine at each of our locations.
- Commissaries are routinely used by many upscale restaurant groups that serve a high volume of customers to ensure consistency in food quality and service.
- The vast majority of our products have always been locally sourced and freshly prepared at each of our locations.
- We do not use microwaves for reheating process in any of our restaurants.
Menu items and products:
- Our croquettes need to be frozen regardless of where they are prepared in order to be shaped and fried (due to the nature of the béchamel). Thus, for example, the croquettes prepared in our D.C. restaurants are frozen as part of the preparation and cooking process. - We do use Hellman's Mayonnaise. Mayonnaise made in-house may pose a safety risk of raw egg. Using commercial mayonnaise was recommended to us by one of our food safety consultants.
- Our Risotto was never frozen. The freezing process would deteriorate the product quality.
Commitment to fresh products and locally-sourced food:
- Fig & Olive views our agricultural partners and suppliers as an extension of the Fig & Olive experience. We have profound respect for the farmers and other partners who work with us to provide the highest quality products for our customers. Since our founding, we have always viewed our agricultural partners as necessary to our success. As such, we work very closely with all of our vendors to ensure freshness and consistent quality.
- As is consistently demonstrated by our menu, we enjoy strong relationships with local farms for produce and meats.
FARMS: Here is a sample of the farms we work with in specific locations:
NY: Satur Farm - LynOaken Orchard - DeMeyer farm
CA: Kenter Canyon - Weiser family farm - Babe farm - Mary's farm
IL: Harmony Valley - Todd Greiner Orchard - Goebberts Farm - Living Water Farm DC: Spring Valley - Crown Orchards - Tuscarora Organic - Parker Farm