Jessica Sidman of the Washington City Paper, reports Fig & Olive has settled at least 48 cases involving diners in D.C., L.A., and New York who got sick from a salmonella outbreak at the upscale restaurant chain last fall, according to attorney Bill Marler. The Seattle-based foodborne illness lawyer, who represented the majority of the victims, says only four cases—all in California—are unresolved. Twenty four of those who received settlements—not all of whom actually filed lawsuits—were from the D.C.-area, Marler says.
The unsettled cases involve people who “were more significantly injured,” Marler says. “They’re people who were hospitalized for some period of time.” He says one woman who got sick after eating at the West Hollywood location has developed reactive arthritis, also known as Reiter’s syndrome, which can result after a salmonella infection. “It’s pretty devastating. She’s a 19-year-old with one knee that’s the size of a volleyball, and she has had it drained repeatedly,” Marler says.
Fig & Olive did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Marler says he’s hoping to resolve the remaining cases in mediation. “And if that doesn’t work, then the cases will go forward through the court system.”
The size of the settlements is confidential, but Marler says “the results were fair.” Some D.C. victims sought as much as $500,000 plus fees in their lawsuits.
“Nobody likes being that sick, but I think the settlement results took that all into account,” Marler says.
The salmonella outbreak shutdown the CityCenter, DC location for six days last September. The Food and Drug Administration and local health authorities never definitively determined the exact source of the salmonella, but truffle mushroom croquettes were a common denominator among Fig & Olive diners who got sick. Components of the dish were pre-prepared at a Long Island City commissary that supplied Fig & Olive’s restaurants around the country with already-made sauces, dressings, and more, and has since been closed.
Four former employees agreed to talk to Washington City Paper about Fig & Olive’s operations only on the condition of anonymity, and those familiar with the layoffs say around a dozen managers and corporate employees across the company were let go. Other employees have also quit the upscale Mediterranean restaurant chain in recent months over frustrations with how the business is run.
Fig & Olive Marketing Director Ludovic Barras would not confirm how many people were laid off last week, citing “confidentiality issues.” He added, “We have implemented some restructuring as part of our business review and strategy, however we do not generally discuss our approach outside of the company.”
Former employees say sales have been down in the wake of the September salmonella outbreak and subsequent critical media coverage. While Fig & Olive hasn’t divulged specifics, company President Greg Galy told the Washington Post in December, “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.”
One former mid-level executive says, “They’re an image conscious-first company. They don’t care about the guest. They care about their image, and they care about the bottom line … It’s just not a good company.”
Foodborne illness lawyer Bill Marler has filed five lawsuits on behalf of diners who reported getting sick, but he says he has 50 cases in the pipeline that could be filed after the discovery period. A federal judge in D.C. has ordered that discovery be completed by Aug. 31. “We have been attempting to resolve the cases, but have not made progress–even for those people who were hospitalized,” Marler writes in an email.
Fig & Olive declined to comment about pending litigation.
Meanwhile, a second health department shutdown at one the chain’s California outposts in the months after the salmonella outbreak raises further questions about the company’s food safety efforts.
Fig & Olive “denies that it was negligent or that its actions caused damage to plaintiff” in regard to several counts in a complaint filed in September by Laura Donahue, an Arlington woman who ate croquettes with truffle oil at the restaurant and was hospitalized.
“If plaintiff sustained the injuries and damages alleged,” the New York chain writes in its answer, “said injuries and damages were due to the acts or omissions of a third party over which this defendant had no control.”
The restaurant’s DC location was closed for six days while the DC Department of Health investigated. Fig & Olive’s West Hollywood, California, location was linked to the outbreak later in September. The DC Department of Health and Department of Forensic Sciences told Washingtonian at the time that the Centers for Disease Control had “confirmed that this is now a multiple state investigation tied to Fig and Olive food establishments.”
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 CityCenter DC 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 CityCenter DC 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.
“We are continuing to make progress on testing and re-testing our products and procedures and sanitizing our facility from top to bottom. We are working with both the Department of Health and with the third-party food safety company we retained. It is premature to discuss any findings at this time but we are working hard to re-open soon.”
The D.C. Department of Health is trying to determine the source of the outbreak. Environmental and food samples have been collected.
Twenty cases of possible salmonella have been identified, but only two have been confirmed.
Three of those cases occurred over Labor Day weekend, as people were admitted to Sibley Memorial Hospital.
A spokeswoman for Fig & Olive says the restaurant is cooperating with the health department.
Fig and Olive released the following statement:
“The health and safety of our restaurants and patrons is of paramount importance to us. Fig & Olive has closed the City Center DC restaurant due to reports that some patrons have recently been sickened. We have retained third-party consultants to provide assistance in this investigation and will cooperate fully with the Department of Health. We will continue to work with the DOH to insure that we have done all we can for the safety of our customers.”