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Casual-dining chains alter beverage policies

Applebee’s, Olive Garden and Ruby Tuesday modify service, ops after two toddlers accidentally served alcohol

Three major casual-dining chains are stepping up employee training and changing their drink policies after two toddlers who were served alcohol in restaurants made headlines this week.

The two separate incidents — one involving a 15-month-old boy receiving alcohol instead of apple juice last week at a Detroit-area Applebee’s and another involving a 2-year-old getting tropical sangria instead of orange juice in March at an Olive Garden in Florida — have prompted changes at those chains as well as at rival dinnerhouse brand Ruby Tuesday.

Mike Archer, president of Lenexa, Kan.-based Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, said Monday the more than 2,000-unit chain is investigating the incident, which police blamed on a mislabeled container at the bar. In the meantime, he said Applebee’s servers will now pour apple juice at the table from single-serve containers.

Archer also said servers would be retrained on the chain’s beverage pouring policy, “emphasizing that non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages must be stored in completely separate and identified containers.”

Darden Restaurants Inc., which owns the 730-unit Olive Garden, apologized for the incident at the restaurant in Lakeland, Fla., calling it “an unfortunate case of human error.”

“The trust our guests place in us is paramount, which is why we have implemented a change in our procedures to prevent this situation from happening again,” said Darden, which also owns the Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52 brands.

Rich Jeffers, director of media relations for Orlando, Fla.-based Darden, said in interview Friday that the chain is now requiring that all alcoholic drinks, including sangria, be made to order and not pre-mixed in batches.

In addition, he said all servers and bartenders will receive reinforced training.

The accidents at Applebee’s and Olive Garden also have pushed Ruby Tuesday to beef up beverage training for its servers. Meridith Hammond, communications manager at Maryville, Tenn.-based Ruby Tuesday, said in an e-mail that all servers, bartenders and manager will now be required to watch a video about the 900-unit chain’s beverage procedures and order accuracy before their shifts start.

“We have always provided thorough training of our servers and bartenders to make sure guests get what they order,” Hammond said.

Independent restaurants also are watching what the big chains are doing in response to the toddler incidents. Andrew Bonnemort, owner of Café Dufrain in Tampa, Fla., said pre-mixed cocktails, like the sangria at the Olive Garden, can be risky.

“We don’t have drinks that are pre-mixed,” he said.

Contact Alan Snel at [email protected].

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