Was The 20/20 Restaurant Episode Fake? A View From The Cutting Room Floor

20/20 fake

Recently 20/20 aired yet another tired restaurant hit piece trying to scare diners about filthy restaurants and their uncaring employees.  In the episode they used footage showing everything from an employee bathing in the sink to servers making out in the kitchen.  They partner it with ominous music and interviews with industry “experts” to make the scenes more salacious.  What they fail to mention is that most of the scenes were dramatized and that they had real industry insiders telling them that these things do not really occur.  I only know this because I was interviewed for the segment and my statements of reality ended up on the cutting room floor.

I was first contacted by producer Jacqueline Jaeger in September.  We talked on the phone and I instantly realized the tone of the piece.  They were the same questions you might get from a classmate after a few drinks.  “Do they really mess with your food?”  “Do they really reuse the bread at the table?”  I assured her that these things do not really occur and was quite surprised that they were still interested in doing an interview.  Finally, someone was going to have a chance to assure guests that they should be confident dining out and refute all of the lies spread by the media to garner ratings.  They flew producer Jonathan Balthaser to Kansas City and did an hour long interview followed by filming me during the course of a shift.  They even outfitted me with a camera on my forehead to get the point of view of a server.

20/20 Fake

The interview was cut entirely and the other footage was mostly used for background shots in the piece.  Some might be reading this thinking that I am writing it out of frustration for being cut out.  I assure you this is not the case.  Given the tone of the piece, I am embarrassed admitting I was involved at all.  I never looked at the segment as publicity as much as an opportunity for honesty.  It is time that the media is honest about the hard working people in the restaurant industry who do care about the safety of their guests.  Instead, 20/20 found two “experts” who were more than happy to trash the industry they claim to be a part of.

Now there is a big difference between using bad sources for interviews and calling a segment fake.  I specifically used the latter and feel it is an accurate statement.  The segment began with a 4 year old YouTube video now of a Burger King employee bathing in a sink.  This employee later explained that the video was shot as a publicity stunt for his band.  They then proceeded to bring out their primary expert, Willie Degel from the television show Restaurant Stakeout.  This is the point in the episode where I knew things were going to get bad in a hurry.

Willie Degel has already demonstrated a willingness to create fake television for good ratings.  Is his show Restaurant Stakeout fake?  Owners have come forward to detail how the show hires actors to portray misbehaving servers and coaches actual employees to perform bad acts to create more drama.  Mr Degel seems to thrive on the idea that terrible things happen in every restaurant except his.  Although a quick look at his restaurant’s Yelp reviews paints a very different picture.   I will save my beef with Mr Degel and his fake Restaurant Stakeouts for another post.  It is sufficient to say that if you want facts, you probably should not go to someone who has no problem passing of fictional drama as reality.

Speaking of fiction, they also interviewed professional fiction author, Debra Ginsberg.   Ms. Ginsberg is best known for her book “Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress.”  This book was published in 2000 and recounts some of the more memorable stories of her 20 years in the restaurant business.  While I don’t question that Ms. Ginsberg had some wonderful experiences in the restaurant industry, I would hardly classify her memories of serving during the Reagan Administration as news or an accurate representation of the state of the industry today.

In the episode, 20/20 relied heavily on clips shot through a filter to make them seem as if they came from a hidden camera.  The two most salacious clips are of a couple getting amorous in a kitchen and a “server” eating food off a plate coming out of the kitchen.  Both scenes were taken directly from episodes of Restaurant Stakeout.  This is not pointed out during the clips.  Nor was it pointed out that those employees were most likely coached or actors hired as servers as has been confirmed by at least one restaurant owner featured in the show.  In days when integrity mattered, there were disclaimers over the footage like “dramatization” or “re-enactment”.  20/20 apparently had no need to hold themselves to any such standard.  They also didn’t find it pertinent that their parent company is reportedly considering the purchase of the majority owner of Food Network (home of Restaurant Stakeout).

All of this would be forgivable if 20/20 didn’t have an hour’s worth of interview footage from someone currently in the industry.  I was asked about all of the nasty behaviors they claimed were true and refuted each of them.  They had the footage and could have set the record straight.  Instead they searched for less reputable sources to share anecdotal stories and portray them as common place.  This is of course their prerogative, but they should at least be honest about the lack of journalistic integrity and dispel any notion that they are a “news” program.

I should point out that I gave both producers I worked with the opportunity to comment on their choice of experts for this story and their slandering of hard working servers.  Rather than excluding these comments, I will share their response.  Producer Jonathan Balthaser had this to say,

“I’m sorry that you felt the piece was unfair to servers. I can understand why you might feel that way.

Unfortunately, as the field producer, I didn’t have much say as to what actually went into the piece. I know in an initial script you were featured prominently and we were including the part about how few sick days servers get for example, but at some point that was taken out by a senior producer. I hate to pass the buck, but the truth is I had no control over who was used as sources in the piece.”

The actions of Darden, Papa Johns, and restaurant franchisees around the country regarding health insurance have been in the headlines for weeks.  They had great footage about the biggest news story regarding the restaurant industry, but decided not to use it.  Even Jon Stewart covered this topic on The Daily Show.  It is a sad state of affairs in this country when comedians cover the news and journalists cover sensationalism.  The senior producer Jacqueline Jaeger had this response,

“I am sorry you feel this way. We did not slander the servers who work tirelessly in restaurants all around the country. In fact, they, as you are, continue to be valuable resources to help clean up the restaurant industry.”

This does not explain why these servers were so prominently ignored in the episode and replaced with servers coached on bad behavior for a reality show.  When people are scared to eat at restaurants, servers lose tips.  When guests are told that restaurant employees have sexual relations on their food and cannot be trusted to package leftovers, servers lose tips.  20/20 did slander servers by focusing solely on coached bad behaviors and ignoring those who are trying to make it better.

I should also point out that I was not entirely cut from the episode.  I do appear with my face blurred (because apparently showing an employee doing anything positive needs to be done anonymously).  I am washing my hands.  As the voice over says, “You know what else employees blow off?  Washing their hands.”  That pretty much sums up the distinction 20/20 wants you to believe and the reality of the restaurant industry.

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About David Hayden

David Hayden is a restaurant marketing and training consultant based in Kansas City, MO. He writes a series of 9 blogs collectively known as The Hospitality Formula Network and is the author of "Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips" and "Building Your Brand With Facebook"