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This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Customers turn stupid

As anyone in a service industry can attest, customers aren’t always right. Sometimes they’re not even sane. Last week was a reminder that accommodating consumers is often a matter of gritting your teeth and remembering that murder carries a long prison sentence.

1. Easy money? Not that easy.

Several years ago, Wendy’s virtually lost a whole quarter of sales because some yahoo claimed she’d found part of a finger in her chili. The internet was not the instantaneous scream it is today, but news spread fast enough to scare away consumers who feared they’d spoon up a knuckle in their Frosty.

It was, of course, a hoax. You’d expect more of that con gaming today because of the trying economic conditions. Sure enough, a 38-year-old woman in California filed a suit against McDonald’s, alleging she’d suffered second-degree burns on her hands because the lid to a hot coffee hadn’t been secured before it was handed through a drive-thru window. As proof, the woman provided pictures of her wounds.

This week, authorities in California revealed the pictures were fakes, and apparently not even good ones, an excusable thing in the age of Photoshop. She’d lifted them from a hospital website which the regulators stumbled upon. Instead of collecting a six or seven-figure settlement, the woman was charged with 21 felony counts of fraud by the California Department of Insurance.

2. Urinals on Craigslist?

Economic pressures have also affected heads in Detroit, quite literally. News emerged this week of a new upswing in “scrapping,” or stripping any materials from a building, abandoned or in full use, that can be sold to junkyards or builders. Among the targets were the rest rooms of fast-food restaurants, where urinal valves and other piping were yanked out during regular business hours.

Operators there have taken to securing fixtures behind protective devices, or installing locks that thwart wrenches.

3. Signs of inflammation

Drive up and down Restaurant Rows and you’ll spot names like Hooters, Twin Peaks, Tilted Kilt and Crabby Dick’s. Consumers have more or less come to accept those names. But they couldn’t abide the signage that a Colorado operator posted on his new place in Fort Collins, proclaiming it Illegal Pete’s.

The restaurant bore the name that Pete Turner used on his sixth previous restaurants, all of which operate in Colorado. He’d taken it from a novel he’d read in college, so the name had been around long before Turner opened his first Illegal Pete’s in 1995.

But soon-to-be neighbors of the seventh store found the moniker intolerable, and referred to it at protests as the “i word.” They objected not because of any perceived wink at breaking the law, but out of concern the name would be taken as a slur on immigrants who were in the country illegally. Some suggested that the sign reading “Illegal Pete’s” was a throwback to the insults that were posted in a bygone era, “Hispanics and dogs not welcome here.”

To his credit, Turner met with the protesters, but decided to keep his chain’s identity. He even reached out to them via his website, professing his respect for their viewpoint and suggesting everyone politely accept the difference in opinions. “We can disagree, but let’s not be turds about it. Okay?”, as Turner put it. Then it invited everyone to come for a margarita.

4. Political food fight

A provocative name and outrageous menu also fanned controversy this week at a Pittsburgh takeout restaurant. Lives were even threatened, prompting the Conflict Kitchen to close until authorities could adjudge the credibility of the written death warning.

The Kitchen features the cuisines of countries that are adversaries of the United States, like North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. It’s a tasteless gimmick, but the place doesn’t promote radicalism, and no one is forced to eat there. Death threats? Really? The kiosk is run by artistes who profess an interest in discussing their home country’s conflicts with other lands. Wouldn’t a bad Yelp review have been enough of a slap?

A letter threatening to kill some of the artists-turned-operators was sent to police, who gave a thumbs up to the restaurant’s reopening about three days afterward. The authorities did not air any indications as to who might have sent the threats.

5. How many breadsticks??

Olive Garden scored a rare moment of genuine foodinista buzz this summer when it offered seven weeks of unlimited pasta to consumers who were lucky enough to buy one of 1,000 all-you-can eat passes for a mere $100. Among those who succeeded was a minister from Burlington, N.C., who proceeded to use the pass every day. For lunch and dinner. Except on weekends, when he’d visit his local Olive Garden three times per day.

By his count, that was about more than102 meals, which would have cost him more than $1,600 if he had to buy each one of them.

This is not a person who subscribes to the maxim that variety is the spice of life. He would have recouped his money, and then some, if he’d diversified after his seventh meal.

Fortunately for Olive Garden, the publicity payback continues to grow. The minister, Alan Martin, described the food as “fanastic.” He told Salon,  “I have not had one meal that was not just perfect.”

Olive Garden’s marketing department couldn’t have scripted it any better.

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