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Applebee’s to retrain staff after toddler accidentally given alcohol

Lawyer offers tips to minimize exposure when employees make mistakes

Applebee’s Grill & Bar said Monday it would change how drinks are served after a toddler was mistakenly given alcohol instead of juice at one of its restaurants last week.

The child, 15-month-old Dominic Wilson Jr., was served a trace amount of alcohol Friday at an Applebee’s in Madison Heights, Mich. Police ruled it an accident, saying the child’s cup was filled from a mislabeled bottle at the bar.

Mike Archer, president of Lenexa, Kan.-based Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, said in a statement Monday that the child was examined by emergency medical technicians and released.

“We want to express how thankful we are that the child involved in the incident at our restaurant … was not seriously injured as a result of accidentally receiving the wrong beverage,” Mike Archer, president of Lenexa, Kan.-based Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, said in a statement Monday. “We also want to apologize to his parents, for the stress and worry this caused them. Although our efforts to speak with the child's parents have been unsuccessful, we extend our personal apologies.”

Archer said Applebee’s was conducting an investigation into the incident. In the meantime, he said the chain would make immediate changes to its procedures for serving apple juice and other non-alcoholic drinks.

“We will switch to pouring apple juice only from single-serve containers served at the table. We have already started communicating this new policy within our system and it will be in-place this week,” Archer said. “[Secondly,] we will retrain all servers on our beverage pouring policy, emphasizing that non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages must be stored in completely separate and identified containers.”

He added: “We recognize our responsibility to constantly assess our safety policies and procedures to ensure they are rigorous and consistently followed. We believe today's strong actions make a statement to our guests of all ages around our commitment to provide a safe and enjoyable dining experience.”

David T. Denney, a Dallas attorney whose practice focuses on food, beverage and hospitality issues, said an employee’s mistake or lack of common sense can land a restaurant in the news.

“While it is impossible to write a policy or procedure for every conceivable liability scenario, the operator must react to repeated incidents with renewed vigor in training,” Denney said in an e-mail Monday to Nation’s Restaurant News. “After developing comprehensive policies and training on them, the operator must ensure policies are followed, and enforce those that are not. After that, the operator is in the sometimes scary position of trusting its employees to perform correctly.”

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If an operator encounters a case such as what happened Friday at the Applebee’s restaurant, the first step is to take care of the customer before he or she leaves the restaurant, Denney said.

“Be gracious,” he said. “If she needs medical attention, be the first to call. If there is time, investigate the circumstances of the incident to ensure you’re operating on the best set of facts available at the time.”

He added: “Comp her meal (there is nothing an aggrieved patron hates more than being charged for a meal after a perceived wrong). Get her contact information, and follow up.”

Then, Denney said, call in the professionals.

“As soon as possible, contact your insurance agent and attorney,” he said. “Get to the bottom of the incident. If you determine you have made an error (or, even if you haven’t, and you determine it’s best to avoid a fight), it is often beneficial to contact the guest and try to work out a settlement.”

In order to limit negative media attention, Denney said a settlement should include a confidentiality provision with consequences if the agreement is breached.

“If you are going to pay good money to keep a story out of the paper, there has to be a disincentive for an aggrieved patron to take your money and run for a megaphone,” he said.

The incident at the Detroit-area Applebee’s is not the first time a minor was mistakenly served alcohol at one of the chain’s units.

In 2006, a New York City Applebee’s accidentally served a 5-year-old a Long Island iced tea cocktail instead of apple juice. And in June 2007, the Associated Press reported that an Applebee’s unit in Antioch, Calif., accidently served a margarita to a 2-year-old instead of apple juice.

The Applebee’s chain included 1,701 franchise locations and 309 corporate locations at the Dec. 31-ended fourth quarter. Parent company Dine Equity of Glendale, Calif., also franchises and operates the 1,504-unit IHOP brand.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].

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