Fig & Olive went through a round of layoffs last week—six months after a salmonella outbreak sickened diners at its restaurants in D.C. and California.
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.”
“The company’s got some internal issues, and I think they’re really struggling to figure it out right now,” one former employee says, later adding: “They’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I think they’re trying to fix them.”
Not everyone has such an optimistic outlook: “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,” says a former mid-level executive.
Among the top brass no longer with Fig & Olive is VP of Food & Beverage Fabien Guardiola. Barras says the position will not be filled at this time. When the very first cases of salmonella came to light, Guardiola told the Washington Post, “We are not aware of any violation or risk found” just hours after health inspectors found 10 critical and six noncritical violations at the CityCenterDC restaurant. (The restaurant, however, was not shut down until the next day.)
Lawsuits against Fig & Olive are ongoing. 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.
Inspection reports from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health obtained by City Paper reveal that the West Hollywood location on Melrose Place was shut down on Nov. 17—two months after a salmonella outbreak hit that same restaurant—for operating without hot water. (Coincidentally, Nov. 17 is the same day Fig & Olive released its first cookbook.) Multiple Fig & Olive employees tell City Paper that Galy knew the hot water heater was broken but made the call to continue serving diners anyway, despite objections from staff.
“These guys only care about money. They are business-driven, financially savvy, shrewd businessmen… They’re not restaurant people,” one employee says. “He was going to lose money if he closed the restaurant.”
Fig & Olive declined to comment about Galy’s role in the incident.
An anonymous caller reported the lack of hot water to the Los Angeles health department’s after-hours emergency hotline, prompting an inspection that same evening. The health inspector found no hot water at the sink used to clean dishes or at the handwashing sinks in the kitchen, bar, and restrooms. Restaurants are required to have hot running water, critical to killing harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses, at a minimum of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, but the inspector found temperatures only reached 74 degrees.
The restaurant’s operations were suspended in the middle of dinner service. Health inspectors instructed the staff to cease everything and not to wash any dishes until the hot water was back on, and so piles of dirty plates and cookware (see below) were left out overnight. Because the restaurant didn’t get approval to reopen until late afternoon of the next day, much of the dishware still hadn’t been cleaned when the kitchen began service.
Representatives of the restaurant appeared at an administrative hearing on Nov. 18, where the Beverly Hills District’s chief environmental health specialist discussed the public health risks and potential legal consequences of their actions. According to a “food compliance review” report, Galy and General Manager Michael Forsyth were warned that if further critical violations were observed, it “may result in revocation of the public health permit”—meaning the restaurant would be permanently shut down—and a potential referral to the City Attorney.
The restaurant repaired the hot water heater on Nov. 18, and the health department allowed it to reopen.
Barras says Fig & Olive has been working with food safety company UL Everclean, based in California, periodically since 2015 to “consult, advise, assist, and train on food safety standards as a supplement to our existing food safety program.” UL Everclean was also retained “specifically to supplement and consult on our food safety program commencing with the Washington D.C. location, and subsequently to our other locations,” he says.
Meanwhile, reports from the Food and Drug Administration and the Los Angeles health department reveal more details about the potential source of salmonella, although authorities never conclusively pinpointed the culprit. Truffle mushroom croquettes were a common denominator among the majority of people who got sick. The L.A. report suggests that black trumpet mushrooms that were blended in with truffle oil could be responsible. Produce is a common source for foodborne illnesses because it can be contaminated by dirty irrigation water, manure, or animal contact.
Fig & Olive employees at the chain’s since-closed Long Island City commissary prepared a puree by blending mushrooms with truffle oil. “It was making it look like it was black truffle peelings, minced truffle,” one former Fig & Olive employee explains, “but it was really black trumpet.”
The puree was used to garnish dishes, including the truffle mushroom croquettes. “Due to the absence of a heat-kill step, it is possible the mushrooms, and therefore puree, were contaminated before they were distributed,” the report reads.
FDA inspectors never got the chance to test any food samples at the commissary because it had been shut down before they arrived on Oct. 1. Tests of food samples in D.C. and L.A. came back negative for salmonella, which is not uncommon in foodborne illness outbreaks. (The exact source of the recent E. coli outbreak at Chipotle, for example, is still unknown.)
The L.A. report also suggests the possibility that an infected food handler at the commissary could be the source of salmonella. “Infected individuals can excrete the bacteria in their feces for a few days or several weeks, depending on how quickly their bodies are able to get rid the GI tract of the illness. Salmonella can remain in a person’s system even after symptoms have resolved,” the report says.
In fact, three Fig & Olive commissary employees took sick leave in August and September, according to the FDA report. Two of the three reported diarrheal symptoms, but none of them were tested for salmonella.
“The investigation was unable to determine if the source of Salmonella contamination originated at [the] Fig & Olive Commissary or from a contaminated shipment,” the FDA report concluded.
The Los Angeles health department reported that 23 of the 121 employees at the West Hollywood location admitted to having gastrointestinal symptoms at the time of the outbreak. Stool samples were reportedly collected from all employees that handled food or reported symptoms within the past month, and 14 tested positive for salmonella.
“Food handlers at the restaurant were most likely infected themselves when eating the contaminated food, and were not the source,” the report says. “Food handlers were likely exposed due to the family-style meals eaten on site every day.”
The D.C. Department of Health had a tougher time testing D.C. employees, according to emails obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request.
“It seems that our staff is pushing back a bit with respect to stool sampling,” Fig & Olive chairman Pablo Pizzimbono emailed D.C. health officials on Sept. 19. “We are not getting as many to volunteer as we need.” He asked for someone from DOH to come and address the staff.
On Sept. 21, Victoria Griffith of Griffith Safety Group, the third-party food safety firm hired by Fig & Olive, also emailed DOH about the lack of cooperation: “I was at Fig and Olive all weekend. I am here now. We didn’t get any samples turned back in at all. Can you advise on what would be best at this point? We have been reviewing with the staff the symptoms, what a carrier is, and also if anyone in their house hold was sick at all.”
Rather than send someone to address the staff, DOH drafted a letter to explain that the stool samples would help determine if employees had a salmonella infection, even if they weren’t presenting symptoms. The letter was also translated into Spanish.
“Because of other tasks we have to complete related to the Pope’s visit, I am hoping that the letter will work well in terms of encouragement rather than an in-person visit,” writes DOH Senior Infectious Disease Epidemiologist Sasha McGee to Griffith. “We can re-evaluate again once it is distributed.”
But it appears the efforts were not very successful. A few weeks later, McGee emailed Griffith back saying, “We would like to collect back the stool sample kits since they were not used.”
Pizzimbono did, however, send DOH the names of five front-of-house employees at the D.C. restaurant who got sick at the time of the outbreak, although it’s unclear if their illnesses were related to salmonella or something else. Pizzimbono says one of them had norovirus, another reported feeling ill after eating at Panda Express, and a third “said he ate some bad oysters at a small restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland.”
A manager also reported “feeling a little off” on the evening of Sept. 5, according to Pizzimbono. The day prior, he’d eaten “a small portion of truffle oil puree.” The manager nonetheless returned to work on Sept. 6 and stayed from brunch through the dinner rush. “At that point his stomach was in shambles and [he] went home and didn’t return until Thursday,” Pizzimbono wrote. (Thursday was the day the health department shut the restaurant down.)
The chairman told DOH that no kitchen staff in D.C. reported being sick.
In the aftermath of the outbreak, City Paper reported about how Fig & Olive used a central commissary to make nearly 200 menu components, including sauces, soups, purees, and dressings. The commissary was closed in September after the salmonella reports, and since then, Fig & Olive restaurants have moved all food production in-house.
However, whether there was a plan to close the commissary all along, or whether it was a direct response to the outbreak, is a subject of dispute.
In his December interview with the Post, Galy said that Fig & Olive “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.”
Post reporter Tim Carman followed up with a more direct question:
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.
However, multiple sources from Fig & Olive say they were unaware of any plans to shut down the commissary and move all food production in-house prior to the salmonella outbreak. Barras says the plans weren’t shared with everyone.
Still, the FDA report pins the shutdown on salmonella: “Due to circumstances surrounding the outbreak, Fig & Olive made the decision to permanently close the commissary location.” And in fact, about a month after the outbreak, the company held a conference call with its chefs and general managers across the country about whether or not they still needed a commissary.
In an internal email from Oct. 16 leaked to City Paper, the company’s operation project manager recaps the call and each location’s position on the commissary. The New York restaurants, which had some of the smaller kitchens, were the most reliant. The chef at the Meatpacking location is quoted as saying they need the commissary and that there is no space to do specials. “Very overwhelming,” the email reports him saying. “We will need to change the hours of operation, the cover count… Payroll is through the roof. Not a benefit for 13th street to NOT have commissary.” Someone from the Fifth Avenue location in Manhattan likewise expressed the need for a commissary. “All the parties, catering orders, it is hard to catch up. ‘we are playing too much with fire,’” the email quotes.
Others, however, embraced the commissary’s closure. “Everyone is happy that we are not getting from commissary, everything is fresh,” a rep from the Chicago location is quoted saying. “The only thing is waffles.” The West Hollywood chef agreed: “‘Super fresh’ excites me. We do need to work on the distribution part, but food wise, no issue.”
As for what happened to the employees of the commissary? “We did make efforts to relocate some positions within the company,” Barras says.
Fig & Olive also increased its prices after the salmonella outbreak, but early this year, lowered them (although a few dishes remain at a higher price). President Galy told the Post in December that the price hike was tied to labor cost increases expected in other cities.
But now? “We realized the prices were, frankly, too high,” Barras says. “We have, obviously, high-end customers, but we are open to every and any customer and we love them. And so we wanted to not upset people and make it accessible.”
At the D.C. location, Fig & Olive hired new chef de cuisine Brent Sick about two months ago. Sick, who previously worked at Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group and Rosa Mexicano, is overseen by corporate chef Wilfrid Hocquet, who’s based out of L.A.
Another change: Fig & Olive no longer lists local farms at the top of its menus. “Our menu is centered around olive oils and ingredients carefully selected from premier farms & vendors for their genuine taste and seasonality,” a new description at the top of the menu reads. Barras says the restaurant still uses local ingredients, but their sourcing changes often enough that the company decided not to list specific local farms. The D.C. location of Fig & Olive does not buy directly from local farms, but rather wholesale distributor Keany Produce supplies seasonally available produce from local farms like Spring Valley, Crown Orchard, and Shlagel Farm, according to Barras.
Despite everything that’s happened in the past six months, the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington will hold its annual meeting breakfast at Fig & Olive on March 22.
“One has nothing to do with the other,” RAMW President Kathy Hollinger said when asked why Fig & Olive was chosen as a venue in light of the recent controversy. “Quite honestly, they’re members. They’re a part of our community. They went through a difficult stage, but if anything, that’s more reason to make sure the industry is coming out to support another restaurant establishment. The community and the board feels really strongly about that, and they wouldn’t have wanted the same thing to happen to them.”
More photos of Fig & Olive's West Hollywood kitchen after the health department shut it down for lack of hot water in November:
Top photo by Darrow Montgomery