Regarding the Hot Wok Changes

by Sherri Koehler on September 14, 2014

Being an Open Letter to New Seasons Market:

Dear New Seasons Market,

I’ve decided to make this letter to you public as it is too long to put on a comment card. I’ve already filled out one comment card and have not yet heard back, I’ve seen minimal response to my complaints on social media either, so I decided to write it all out. While this might be a fairly specific complaint to the Portland Metro area, posting this publicly may provide ideas for others to use when reaching out to local businesses when they make changes that impact food safety and increase prices for vegans to match animal flesh costs.

I want you to know that we’re fans, really. We get good produce, friendly service, and a nice selection of vegan products. You’re even a favorite, inexpensive date night; we come, get a Hot Wok, bring a small game, grab a drink and have dinner while playing a game in you common dining area.

We’re big fans of your Hot Woks. Over the years we’ve literally eaten hundreds of Hot Wok meals from various of your markets. We loved that we could pick out our veggies, add tofu, self-select noodles, add hot sauce, ginger, and garlic. We’d tell you the sauce and generally it meant a generous dinner (great for days when I’m famished from teaching yoga or gardening) of healthy veggies that were nicely cooked.

Once or twice we got an overcook wok, or one with too much sauce, but on the whole they were all great.

Now you’ve changed it all and I really think it is not for the better from a customer’s perspective.

First complaint: Subsidizing Cruelty

In the past:  Cubed tofu used to be available with all the other veggies. A Basic Bowl, with tofu I’d selected, was one cost and if you wanted animal flesh it could be added while cooking for an additional cost.

Now:  You have to pay the same amount for tofu as animal flesh and it is added at the cooking line, by the cooks, not the customer.

Issue:  There is no way cubed tofu brings up the cost as much as animal flesh does. By now asking for us to pay the same for adding “protein”, it means that those customers ordering only plant-based foods are now helping subsidize your cost for people who have requested animal flesh in their dishes.

Second Complaint: Food Safety

In the past:  The customer picked everything out that went into the bowl: veggies, garlic, ginger, onions, tofu, and noodles. Only sauce was added by the cook.

Now:  The customer points at things and goes back and forth about how much they want of each thing, which takes a lot longer. The “protein”, noodles, or rice are added by the cooks.

Issue: In the past couple of weeks we’ve decided to get Hot Woks twice, this is actually pretty normal for us. In one incident, because I didn’t put the noodles on and the line cook at Mountain Park didn’t pay attention, my wok was served to me with non-vegan noodles (yakisoba) instead of the buckwheat soba I’d requested (and was marked on the ticket correctly). So we had to start all over with the conversation about what veggies to get, etc. The order was comped since I now extended the wait for taking home our dinner the addition 15-20 minutes it took to make a new one.

I have a larger concern related to the noodles now being added by the cooks: my wife is gluten-free and if she was in a hurry, getting a take-out order (so not as easy to see as on a plate) and didn’t happen to catch a mistake where wheat noodles had gone in instead of rice, she’d be sick for days.

Which brings me to the chicken I found while eating out at your Cedar Mills store last night. I was well into eating my wok meal when I started to pop a “broken” cube of tofu into my mouth. Luckily I stopped suddenly because it didn’t look quite the right color. That’s when I realized there was chicken in my meal. Which made me feel pretty queasy in general and unable to eat anything else.

I took it back to the Hot Wok station, the folks on duty were very sympathetic and understanding. In addition to being comped the cost of a meal I couldn’t eat anymore of, I was also give $20 in gift cards. Seriously, your staff are always awesome.

However, that does not alleviate my serious concerns about your cooking area. What is going wrong that chicken ends up with tofu? Are different tongs ALWAYS being used so cross-contamination isn’t happening for either animal flesh/tofu as well as noodles where some contain wheat and/or animal products and one is gluten free. Really, you should have policy in place when you’re cooks are suddenly taking over what goes into an order.

Please be aware that before you changed to the process of New Seasons staff entirely controlling what goes into my order I’ve ended up with animal products in my order twice in as many weeks, in two different stores! This NEVER happened when I made up my wok bowl and presented it to be cooked & sauced. That’s literally hundreds of correct orders with no random animal products.

As a long time customer I’m very unhappy at your changes to the Hot Wok bar. You’ve taken away my control over what goes into our meals and immediately I started seeing serious issues of health and safety. I question cross-contamination even more than I did when customers self-selected bowl contents. I also strenuously object to helping you offset the cost of consumers of animal flesh by making a customer like me pay the same amount for tofu.

I really would like to see you make some changes:

  1. Put the tofu back on the bar with the veggies and stop charging extra for it. This will also prevent cross-contamination with animal flesh behind the line either from flesh falling in with tofu or the same tongs being used indiscriminately for all “protein”.
  2. More clearly label the different noodles. Your menu has “Yakisoba” and “Soba”, I actually get that a busy cook might get those confused thus giving a vegan noodles with animal products in them. Similarly, a strong policy of providing single tongs for each type of noodles thus preventing both cross-contamination of animal products and gluten, in the case of rice noodles.

Better yet, go back to the way you had it as it worked best for the customer.

Sherri Koehler

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