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February 1-8, 2006

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The Byrne Report

Real Scam

By Peter Byrne

Two weeks ago, Anna Ayala and her husband, Jaime Plascencia, were sentenced to prison for several crimes, including attempting to swindle the Wendy's restaurant chain by inserting a severed finger into a bowl of half-eaten chili. Ayala, 40, got nine years, and Plascencia, 44, was slammed with a 12-year stretch. Most of the hard time meted out by the judge was for the failed finger conspiracy.

This is draconian punishment for a crime that did not hurt anybody.

Consider: Robert Noel and Marge Knoller, who were imprisoned after their fighting dog, Bane, slaughtered Dianne Whipple in San Francisco in 2001. That couple is now walking around, free to adopt more pets. Or how about Michael "Junk Bond King" Milken, who ruined millions of mom-and-pop investors? He served 22 months in prison and kept his ill-gotten fortune. And strangely enough, no Jack in the Box fast-food executives went to jail after fatally feeding E. coli to children some years back.

But when I asked some of my normally sane neighbors if Ayala and her husband were excessively sentenced for a rather insignificant crime, they bristled with righteousness. "They hurt Wendy's!" one exclaimed. "Workers lost jobs!" "That lady has a history of extortion!"

Most remarkably, millions of people did not doubt for a second that Wendy's had served Anna Ayala a bowl of human chili. If anything, Ayala and Plascencia did the public a favor by highlighting a public health issue; I guess Ayala and Plascencia deserve shackles because they inadvertently exposed fast food as inherently sickening.

It is not a crime to put a foreign finger in a bowl of Wendy's chili. It is a crime to extort a person or a business and, apparently, to "think" about doing so. But the brazen couple did not actually file an insurance claim; they just went on television shows to talk about how the finger felt on the tongue. They quickly got cold feet after capturing the fascination of the fast-food-chomping public. They have apologized for the ridiculous stunt. The poorly executed extortion plot did not cause real harm to anybody, and what was the couple's crime other than terminal tackiness? "Thinking" about filing a false insurance claim against Wendy's to make a quick million or two is not a crime in my book.

What amazes me most about this overhyped affair is that people feel sorry for Wendy's, as if it were a real "she." Despite media reporting to the contrary, the damage to Wendy's bottom line appears to be negligible.

In an April 28, 2005, filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, a few weeks after the famed finger was fished out of the chili bowl, Wendy's International Inc. asserted that, "Wendy's [first quarter] sales were impacted by exceptionally strong 2004 comps, inclement weather in various parts of the United States, and the incident that took place last month at one of its restaurants in San Jose [which] impacted sales by approximately 2.0 percent to 2.5 percent since late March."

"Strong comps" means that sales for March fell compared to the previous year. But according to the report, the "comps" had been falling before the finger-finding. So the dip in sales may not have been due to the finger, but to overall weak performance for the first quarter. At any rate, the company's third quarter report, filed Nov. 10, 2005, does not mention "the incident," despite the fact that Ayala-baiting was still dominating the national agenda.

This latest report says that the year-long decline in Wendy's income "is significantly impacted by higher beef costs, which were up 16.6 percent for the year." In addition, "Wendy's third quarter sales were also effected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which resulted in the loss of 1,460 full company store days." On the other hand, Wendy's sales in Canada increased by 12 percent, meaning that the internationally publicized phalange-chewing incident did not scare away Canadian fast-food lovers.

For those who accuse Ayala of causing workers to lose jobs, Wendy's own November earnings report states that the company is "closing 40 to 60 under-performing U.S., company-operated restaurants that are currently negatively impacting profits." Shareholders shouldn't worry--the dividend during the Year of the Finger increased by 5 percent of earnings.

While Ayala and her husband stew in prison for the next decade, the Bush administration is free to run amuck in the Middle East while trashing the Constitution at home. If people would pay more attention to the real criminals, then they wouldn't have any time to cheerlead the destruction of a family that was just trying to make a buck by bending the rules like Halliburton or Enron or WorldCom or--you get the point.

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