What were they thinking?

I was troubled on many levels today when I saw a story in USA Today (April 15) about two restaurant chains accidentally and mistakenly serving drinks to toddlers that had alcohol.

Here’s the lead:

This week, two of the nation’s largest casual dining chains — Applebee’s and Olive Garden — found themselves very uncomfortably trying to explain how alcohol ended up in kids’ drinks.

Tuesday, at an Applebee’s in Madison Heights, Mich., a 15-month-old boy’s sippy cup was supposed to be filled with apple juice but was filled with margarita mix and alcohol. On March 31, at an Olive Garden in Lakeland, Fla., a 2-year-old was served alcoholic sangria, not orange juice.

At one level, as a part of the alcohol industry, I recognize that these are extremely rare occurrences. But, as a consumer and grandparent of a toddler, even one in a billion or trillion is too much.

What were the servers thinking? Are they so bored, uninterested or lazy that they didn’t look carefully at what they were serving? How about the managers at the restaurants, is this how they train their staff?

Another part of the USA Today story got me further annoyed:

Leaders at Applebee’s, Olive Garden and the National Restaurant Association all declined interviews on Thursday, deferring to public relations departments and statements. Applebee’s cited pending litigation.

Come on, I know that corporate lawyers rule, but this is a moral and public confidence issue. Instead of hiding behind PR and counsels, senior management needs to be out there explaining what happened and what it intends to do to prevent this in the future.

This is not the first time. In 2006, a New York City Applebee’s admitted to accidentally serving a 5-year-old a Long Island iced tea instead of apple juice. A California restaurant experienced a similar incident to the one in Detroit in 2007.

So my advice to the brass at these chains is to forget about “damage control” and hiding behind the lawyers. Kick some butt and regain public confidence. The food service business is rebounding, why do you want to shoot yourself in the foot?

For those of us in the alcohol industry, the accidents (or acts of carelessness) add another arrow in the quiver of the anti-alcohol forces.

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