A Sweet Ending to a Nutty Story

Two weeks ago we told you about a misbranded trail mix product that was labeled as containing primarily almonds, but in fact was mostly peanuts. The manufacturer had quietly substituted the cheaper peanuts when almond prices skyrocketed.

1 cup of trail mix

The retailer that sold the product in MrConsumer’s area, Ocean State Job Lot, was unaware of the ingredients switcheroo by the manufacturer until we pointed it out to them. They took the product off the shelves of their 129 stores in the New England/New York area immediately.

And now they are donating all 3,200+ bags of the mislabeled trail mix to the Greater Boston Food Bank.

That’s a sweet ending to this nutty story.

Not so sweet, however, is the retailer’s reluctance to invite their customers to return the product for a refund or replacement. And we’ll update you if and when the FDA takes any enforcement against the manufacturer.

Some Diners Don’t Appreciate “Kitchen Appreciation”

Friends of MrConsumer have been trained to check the fine print of their transactions. A bit of scrutiny of a recent restaurant bill revealed a surprising add-on to the check:

*MOUSE PRINT:

Kitchen appreication

An extra charge of $1.29 called “kitchen appreciation” was added to the tab. When my friend asked the server what that was, he got kind of a muddled explanation, and was told to check the menu.

On the Sweet Cheeks menu (which is owned by first season Top Chef finalist Tiffany Faison) there is a disclosure that reads in part:

WE ARE IMPLEMENTING A 3% KITCHEN APPRECIATION FEE TO THE GUEST CHECK THAT WILL DIRECTLY BENEFIT OUR BACK OF THE HOUSE (BOH) TEAM.

WE STRUGGLE WITH THE DISPARITIES BETWEEN FRONT OF THE HOUSE (FOH) AND BOH WAGES.

THE WAGE GAP BETWEEN THE FOH AND BOH HAS BECOME STAGGERING. FOH EMPLOYEES EARN NEARLY THREE TIMES MORE THAN THEIR BOH COUNTERPARTS.

THE KITCHEN APPRECIATION FEE ALLOWS ALL BOH EMPLOYEES TO DIRECTLY BENEFIT FROM THE TOP LINE SUCCESS OF THE RESTAURANT.

Put simply, the customer is being told that they must subsidize the comparatively low wages of the kitchen staff by being surcharged 3-percent on the total bill. (MrConsumer might point out that the restaurant then appears to charge meals tax on top of this kitchen tip which is probably not authorized under state law.)

Sweet Cheeks didn’t come up with this idea on their own. Famous New York restaurateur Danny Meyer two years ago started the ball rolling by no longer allowing tipping so he could instead charge more for meals and then more equitably distribute the extra income between servers and kitchen staff. Other restaurants began adding hospitality fees as a way to better pay and retain kitchen staff.

So, what do you think about adding a 3-percent “kitchen appreciation” fee automatically to restaurant bills? Add your comments below.

The Case of the Missing Almonds

MrConsumer recently bought a bag of Nutty Naturals trail mix. According to the label, it was a mix with almonds as the primary ingredient followed by cranberries, sunflower seeds, peanuts and chocolate chips. What could be bad?

Trail mix front
almonds first

After munching for a while, it dawned on MrConsumer that there were not many almonds in the bag yet they were supposed to be the primary ingredient. So it was time to figure out exactly what and how much was in the mix. Even MrConsumer did not have the patience to separate and weigh everything in a nearly pound and half package, so one cups-worth was analyzed instead (after shaking the bag to better mix the contents if they had settled).

1 cup of trail mix

Separating the five ingredients into different piles made it abundantly clear visually what the actual proportions were. Putting each pile on a digital scale revealed the actual weight of each component.

*MOUSE PRINT:

6 piles weighed

As it turns out, for a product that is supposed to be flush with almonds, you could count them on one hand in this test.

In order of predominance then, the actual number one ingredient was peanuts, followed by cranberries, chocolate chips, sunflower seeds, and almonds last (and least). This is distinctly different from the representation on the front of the package suggesting that almonds predominated and also is contrary to the ingredients label on the back which is required under federal law to list the ingredients from most to least by weight.

*MOUSE PRINT:

ingredients

MrConsumer contacted the two owners of Ocean State Job Lot where he purchased the trail mix to tell them about the problem. The very next day he heard back that they were pulling the product off their shelves in all 129 stores. The co-owner in charge of buying groceries even went so far as to dump test packages of the trail mix on his desk to see if what MrConsumer had discovered was true. How’s that for speedy, responsible action by an ethical retail chain!

Later that day, MrConsumer received a call from the president of the firm that manufactured the trail mix. He admitted that he reduced the amount of almonds in the product and substituted peanuts when the price of almonds skyrocketed. He said he is going to restore the original recipe of almonds being predominant at least in the short-run.

The Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over labeling issues like this, said through a spokesperson that, “We cannot comment on this particular case but we expect food labels to be truthful and not misleading.” The agency has already contacted the manufacturer and we’ll report back if they take any enforcement action.

Let’s hope that being vigilant and speaking up as a customer, taking quick action to remedy consumer issues if you are a retailer, and not messing around with a product without changing the fine print if you are a manufacturer, are important lessons heeded by everyone in the future. (Well, we can hope.)