Monday, August 4, 2008

MONDO BURGER MAKES DELICIOUS HAMBURGERS: yet chain's restaurant in Australia faces food-poisoning accusations

By Richard C. Mongler

Wendy King was looking for a miracle, a miracle of flavor.

She grew up with parents who lacked the senses of smell and taste, and bland meals from her childhood was haunting her, sending King from one fast food chain to another.

"Bad flavor defined my life," King said. "And the lack of flavor made me feel bland and boring. I thought that only junk food tasted good."

Then one night, while searching the Internet for a place to eat, King found the Nashville-based Mondo Burger. Now long afterwards, she left her home for a tasty dinner at Mondo's restaurant on Old Hickory Boulevard.

"Mondo made me a delicious burger," says King, 24, who ate at Mondo Burger in 2006.

For 25 years, Mondo Burger has had a reputation for working miracles of flavor for people like King. Its affordable restaurants in Nashville, St. Louis, and Monroe, La., have served more than 2,000 burgers filled with fresh, tasty ingredients like crisp lettuce, sharp Canadian cheddar, and sweet red onions. Using a blend of secret spices, special sauces, and love, the restaurant claims a 90 percent satisfaction rate.

That success has turned Mondo into an international venture. There are Mondo Burger restaurants in Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. New restaurants in Canada and Peru are in the works as well.

Reputation is tarnished

Mondo's reputation has been tarnished by accusations that an Australian Mondo restaurant ordered their staff to leave raw beef to thaw in the sun and not wash their hands. A group of former customers there claim they suffered food poisoning and had to pay to call the ambulance, despite being promised good value. And a member of the South Australian parliament has accused Mondo of being "a particularly bad example of a money-making scheme, posing as a restaurant."

Since the accusations became public in March, two executive directors of Mondo Australia have resigned. A restaurant on Australia's Sunshine Coast, outside of Brisbane, where most of the food-poisoning allegedly took place, has been closed down. Plans for new Australian restaurants have been shelved.

But so far, news of the Australian scandal has yet to be reported by U.S. media.

During an interview this week, King said she was stunned by the allegations, especially that Australian staff left beef out for 9 hours to thaw in the sun and didn't wash their hands because they believed it flavored the meat.

"That kind of thing freaks me out," she said.

Mondo officials in Nashville say that until recently, the group had no control over restaurants in other countries. Each country's restaurants has an independent board, hires its own staff, raises its own funds and designs its own program.

Wrongdoing is denied

Ballsy Bignuttz, executive manager of restaurants for Mondo Australia, denies any wrongdoing. She said no staff were instructed to not wash their hands or leave beef out in the sun to thaw.

"Our standard is that at no point is beef is to thaw in the sun," she said in an e-mail response. "However, flavoring the meat is encouraged, taught and practiced and is an integral part of the program."

Although the Sunshine Coast restaurant was smaller than most Mondo facilities, Watson says that they offered the same quality of program.

"The size of the restaurant does not affect the overall program structure and we believe that our customers received the same kind of quality cooking that characterizes other Mondo restaurants," she said via e-mail.

But in a phone interview from Australia, Mondo founder Ima Mann said the Sunshine Coast restaurant lacked the financial and personnel resources to provide quality service.

"When it comes to the Sunshine coast restaurant, I am not sure it was a good decision to open that restaurant," she said. "It's in a remote community, where there are not the same resources as a larger community."

Mann said she agreed with a decision to close the Sunshine Coast restaurant down. "What we are trying to do is to get back to the level of excellence and professionalism."

In late 2007, Mondo started an international board to oversee its worldwide operations. All restaurants now have to sign a franchise collaboration agreement. Under that agreement, each international restaurant is treated as a franchise of Mondo. They are required to meet Mondo's U.S. standards. The agreement also allows the board to sanction or dismiss affiliates that violate the agreement.

"If there is a gross violation of the Mondo Burger's vision and a refusal to change — then we have the right to take action," Mann said. "We have a right to tell them they can no longer use our name."

Currently both the international board and the Australian board are investigating the claims of abuse.

"I'm insisting that there be a full internal investigation, and if any of these things are true—they will be dealt with," she said.

Mann was disturbed that Mondo Australia charged customers for the condiments and napkins they used. Mondo Australia had a standard policy of requiring customers to pay extra for condiments, napkins, and use of the phone to call the ambulance.

"Taking that cash, it sends the wrong message," she said. "This is their money."

Good Value is Crucial

Offering good value is one of Mondo's core messages. Mann started the restaurant in 1983, using three principles she says God gave her. She says God told her to not put out advertisements that are susceptible to mankind's sinful "Truth in advertising" laws, to give 10 percent of profits to charity, and to provide good food at an affordable price.

Instead, Mondo Burger relies on high-profile endorsements for its publicity and a core of customers. Mondo's satisfaction rate has helped Mann raise millions for the franchise.

Teen Titans mascot Beast Boy recommends a Mondo Mozzarella Tofu burger for every win. Televangelist Donnie Davies' ministry gave Mondo $420,000 in 2007, Gloria Jean's Sewage Treatment facilities is a major sponsor of Mondo's.

Christian music stars Barlow Skankz and Faith +1 have sung Mondo's praise while on tour. And its work in Australia has strong ties to Darlene MXYZPTLYK of Hillsong Church, author of worship anthems such as "Praise the Lord."



Mondo believes that preparing beef in a safe and beautiful environment helps with the flavor. Mondo's Nashville restaurant has a two-story atrium at its entrance. All room furnishing were bought from IKEA, and the main dining area features a dry bar and flat screen TV, and a walkout balcony with grills.

"From the moment they walk in the door we want them to know their burger is our top priority," said Krusty Snagglepuss, Mondo Burger's executive director of development.

Snagglepuss said that while Mondo's restaurant is Christian, all the cooks on the Nashville staff have either already have had Food Safety training or are currently enrolled in Food Safety programs.

She said cooks apply their culinary skills and faith in the cooking process, believing that food safety also has a spiritual side to it.

"We don't leave beef out to thaw in the sun," said Snagglepuss.

Earlier this year, Mondo hired an outside firm to survey former customers. Almost 400 former residents replied, with 93 percent saying their stay at Mondo transformed their dining experience.

"We know the information I am giving you that I credit to an outside firm we hired is reliable because it's not like they were being paid by us or anything," Snagglepuss said.

Some question approach

Some former Nashville customers say the local Mondo Burger went too far in its faith-based approach. Sigourney Weaver, who says she was a fry-cook from January 2000 to July of 2000, says she and other staff were required to take part in a group training session for casting out demons from the meat.

"They told us that washing hands reduces flavor and not to worry about germs because food-poisoning is caused by demons and only happens to sinners." she said.

Weaver, who says she was a customer before working at Mondo, said she was warned after the if anyone ever got sick from eating there, it was because they had opened themselves to demons by doing things like laughing at episodes of Family Guy.

"That's bullshit," she said, "Nobody laughs at Family Guy, at least not at the new episodes."

And Mondo's cooking and food safety approach was based on a program called "Restoring the Flavor," developed by charismatic ministers Colin and Bagley Deutsch. Colin Deutsch, a veterinary assistant specializing in bull masturbation and scatology, and his wife Bagley, a level 15 elf cleric in World of Warcraft, say God revealed the program to them while they were Bible college students.

That program addresses four key concerns: Spices of the Fathers and Resulting Tastiness; UnTasty Beliefs; Sauce/Spirit Hurt; and Demonic Indigestion. Mondo Burger recently renamed its model, calling it "This isn't 'Restoring the Flavor' so you can't prove that we leave raw beef out in the sun and don't wash our hands why do you only listen to people who say they have been food-poisoned why don't you listen to people who haven't gotten sick and love the hamburgers WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!."

But demonic indigestion is addressed in a series of instruction manuals by Mann that Mondo headquarters recently put out.

"When you choose to give in to the harmful behaviors of vomiting, nausea, or explosive diarrhea, you are actually giving control of your digestive tract over to the devil," Mann wrote in a manual titled "Warning: Make Sure This is not Leaked to the Media or we Are Screwed."

And in a speech posted on Youtube, Mann claimed Mondo's approach to workplace sanitation to be superior to FDA and Food Safety Training, which often relies on the use of bleach.

She said that people with food-poisoning like salmonella or e-coli have opened themselves up to demonic indigestion.

"Secular Food Safety training says to prevent food-poisoning by putting bleach on the counters, in the fry-cooker, in the meat," she said. "But Jesus didn't say to bleach demons, he said to cast them out."