Sneezing on Pizza

When restaurant workers are caught being gross, we all suffer.

Posted Apr 23, 2009

We don't need to trust each other ... much.

From our streamlined, mechanized modern lives we've extirpated most of those situations in which our ancestors daily laid their lives in the hands of strangers. We no longer require being rowed across rivers or barbered with razors or having our crucial communications carried cross-country on horseback. In reducing our requirements to look each other in the eye, much less touch, we've removed so many opportunities for risk. And yet....

In one area we're stuck exactly where our ancestors were. In restaurants, strangers handle and serve us our food. I can think of few more intimate interchanges. Food enters our mouths, touches our mucous membranes. It can kill us.

Yet strangers manipulate it. We don't merely let them do this. We pay them for it. And typically they do it behind closed doors, where we cannot see them: in restaurant kitchens. This very fact sparks, if we let it, horrifying fantasies. So much is possible back there.

Having heard one too many hair-raisers from friends who worked in restaurants, I'm one of those folks who doesn't eat out much.

A few weeks ago, behind the scenes in their North Carolina workplace, Domino's Pizza employee Kirsty Lynn Hammonds filmed her coworker Michael Setzer doing gross things to food that was ostensibly about to be served: sneezing onto it, breaking wind onto it, stuffing his nostril with cheese. She posted the video to YouTube. It went rapidly viral, viewed over a million times before being taken down on April 15. During the video, a female voice believed to be Hammonds' narrates hijinx such as one in which Setzer lowers his trousers and waves sliced salami around his bare bottom, apparently breaking wind on the meat. "In about five minutes they will go out on delivery," the narrator muses at one point, "and people will be eating these and little do they know the cheese was in his nose."

These two aren't kids; they're 31 and 32. They were fired and, although they claim the video is a hoax, both now face criminal charges of what is called "distributing prohibited foods." Their stunt has cost Domino's an untold fortune in both money and goodwill. The store where Hammonds and Setzer worked was closed for decontamination and Domino's USA president Patrick Doyle quickly issued his own YouTube video, expressing his horror while firmly denouncing such antics and declaring, "There is nothing more important or sacred to us than our customers' trust." Watching him speak, you can feel his pain -- not just as a businessman running damage control, but as a flesh-and-blood human being frankly appalled at the depths to which some will sink in pursuit of ... what? Humor? Fifteen minutes of fame? Relief from the boredom of food service?

It's not just him. Whenever one of these stories breaks -- and this is the biggest in a while -- it wreaks enormous harm on all who hear it. It savages our faith in humankindness. Hammonds and Setzer do not represent the majority of food-service workers -- or so we hope. (See? There went the last of my faith.) But one quick video is all it takes to scare untold numbers out of eating anywhere but home (and not ordering takeout). That sucks for the American economy. It also tears open our hearts and minds to the awful truth that for all our sophistication we are, in restaurants, like baby birds waiting with mouths wide open and eyes sealed shut for treats, not tricks. We trust. And broken trust hurts worse and heals more slowly than a broken bone.