Faced with harsh complaints from customers, bad reviews from the Better Business Bureau and tough questions from NBC 7 Investigates, a local company last month promised to improve how it does business.
But one dissatisfied customer now says Farm Fresh Foods took much too long to make good on its promise, and she worries that other customers will not be treated fairly and honestly.
Dotti Garton of North Park paid $179 for a freezer pack of beef.
She’s an experienced cook, and she says the meat sold by Farm Fresh’s door-to-door sales people was the worst she had ever tasted.
That includes the hamburger (which the salesman described as "all natural chopped steak"), and even the “bacon-wrapped filets.”
"I cooked one, then tried to eat it,” Dottie says of the filet. “I couldn't chew it even. I actually spit it out and looked at it. I thought, 'Are you kidding?’"
Dottie wasn’t alone in her culinary critique of the Farm Fresh product.
Our NBC 7 Investigates team found more than 50 similar complaints about quality and business practices posted on the Yelp and Better Business Bureau (BBB) websites.
The El Cajon company lost its BBB accreditation in 2011, and has a "D" rating, on the BBB’s “A-to-F” scale.
When NBC 7 Investigates asked owner Ben Chouinard for a response last month, he said, “The BBB report and the NBC 7 inquires has sort of cast a wake-up call for me, to take an honest and unfiltered look at how we do business."
Chouinard promised big changes would be made at his company, including a new “ethics code” for employees, which prohibits "high-pressure tactics" and "fast-talking sales jargon."
But Chouinard was not willing to abandon a policy that is the object of several complaints on Yelp and the BBB website.
Dissatisfied customers cannot get a cash refund for their unused product; they can only exchange it for another cut of beef, fish, chicken or pork.
But during his interview with NBC 7 Investigates, Chouinard said he would make an exception for Dotti Garton because she had exchanged the product several times and was equally unhappy with what the company gave her.
So on Mar. 6, Dottie called Farm Fresh and asked for her money back.
She talked with several employees, and finally got a promise.
Dotti says the owner’s son, Blake Chouinard, told her he would get the check to her in “24 hours,” but a week passed, and the check didn’t arrive.
Dottie had called every day to ask about the promised refund, and finally, last Thursday, after a week had passed, NBC 7 Investigates contacted Farm Fresh.
The next day, Mar. 14, Farm Fresh owner Ben Chouinard delivered the refund to Dotti's North Park home, handing her two $100 bills, and apologizing for the delay. He told her to keep the $21 change.
“And he looked truly sorrowful about the whole thing and said he hoped it was ‘water under the bridge,’” Dotti told NBC 7 about their conversation.
Just minutes after NBC 7 Investigates talked with Dotti, an envelope arrived in the mail from Farm Fresh Foods. Inside was a check for $179. That check was dated Mar. 11, but the post mark on the envelope was Mar. 13, the same day NBC 7 Investigates called the company.
Dottie was disappointed that the check wasn’t mailed when promised, and credits NBC 7 Investigates for making the phone call that resulted in her refund.
“It was a bigger result, thanks to you guys,” Dotti said.
But the company’s owner has a different explanation: he says his son made the initial promise that the check would be sent within 24 hours without knowing that the company’s bookkeeper would not be in the office for the rest of the week.
Ben Chouinard says the bookkeeper returned to work on Monday, Mar. 10, wrote the check that day and put it in the mail in El Cajon on Mar. 11. That means it took three days for the check to arrive in North Park, instead of customary one-day delivery.
Dotti, meanwhile, accepts the owner's apology, but is skeptical that the company has made a real commitment to improve its product and its customer service.
“I hope things are truly changed for the other customers," Dotti said. “And I wish him the very best in his efforts to improve things.”