Trenton, NJ (Asbury Park Press) -- On the hunt for cheap booze -- or worse -- investigators fanned out
around the state ordering drinks at restaurants and bars. And they found
they didn't always get what they asked for - and in one place, they got
coloring and rubbing alcohol masquerading as scotch.
Thursday, state law enforcement authorities detailed Operation Swill,
which identified 29 restaurants around New Jersey, including a dozen
TGI Friday's locations, that were alleged to have filled bottles of
premium brand liquor with cheaper brands.
administrative charges have been filed against the businesses pending
the outcome of the still-ongoing investigation, said Michael Halfacre,
director of the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Penalties
could include suspension or revocation of a liquor license.
alleged scheme is a dishonest ruse to increase profits and it is a slap
in the face to the consumer," state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said
in a statement. "Consumers should have the peace of mind of knowing
that they will get what they spent their hard-earned money on every
single time - no exceptions."
The investigation started after
consumers complained about specific locations and a confidential
informant, with knowledge of the industry, told authorities. Typically a
difficult allegation to prove after the fact, the state had a new tool
called a true spirit authenticator.
"There's some people that
order consistently over time a certain kind of drink and they know when
it's not what they ordered," Chiesa said.
In a statement issued Thursday, Ricky Richardson, president of Friday's USA, reacted to the allegations.
consider the alleged actions detailed by the New Jersey Division of
Alcoholic Beverage Control to be very disturbing," Richardson said. "If
accurate, they would represent a violation of our company's values and
our extensive bar and beverage standards which are designed to deliver
the highest guest experience in our restaurants.
"We have zero
tolerance for actions that undermine the trust of our guests and call
into question the reputation we have built up over the past 48 years,"
Richardson said. The activity alleged by the state is "isolated to one
group of franchised restaurants," he added.
president and chief operating officer of The Briad Restaurant Group, the
Livingston-based operator of 16 TGI Friday's restaurants in New Jersey,
said the allegations are "especially troubling and surprising to us."
The company takes "great pride" in the quality of its food and drinks,
"We have already begun our own investigation to learn if
any of these allegations are true," Barbrick said in a statement
released late Thursday. "If they are, we will take immediate steps to
correct any issues that may have led to less than a 100 percent quality
experience for our guests."
The company will deploy additional measures, supervision and quality checks, he said.
January and February, investigators visited 63 establishments in New
Jersey, including some selected at random. They asked for their drinks
"neat," without ice, water or mixer. But instead of taking a sip, the
detectives with the ABC tested 150 samples with the true spirit
authenticator to make sure they got the liquor they ordered.
If they didn't, the liquids were sent to the brand manufacturers and tested further.
one case, investigators found that a bottle was filled with a mixture
of rubbing alcohol and caramel color to give the appearance of scotch
whiskey, authorities said. Another establishment, which was not
identified, also poured dirty water, akin to river water, in a bottle
and passed it off as the good stuff, authorities said. Officials said no
health issues were reported.
"Typically, the way this scheme
happens is they take a lesser-known vodka and fill up the premium vodka,
scotch or bourbon with it," Halfacre said. "These couple of egregious
examples, they didn't even bother doing that. They literally just filled
it with whatever they had available."
On Wednesday, about 100
investigators confiscated about 1,000 open bottles of liquor from the 29
establishments, including vodka brands such as Grey Goose and Ketel
One; scotch, such as Johnny Walker Black and Dewar's; and Jose Cuervo
Silver and Gold tequila. Those bottles were on the so-called "speed
rack," the place where bottles used the most by bar tenders are located.
Five funnels also were confiscated, Halfacre said. The investigators also demanded sales records and interviewed employees.
Now the confiscated alcohol will go through rounds of testing by the ABC and manufacturers.
reached a point in this case where we were concerned about about this
practice," Chiesa said. "When you think about people going out to
dinner, whether it's once a month or twice a month, or going out for
whatever the occasion is and not getting what they are paying for, it's a
Halfacre said the operation puts businesses on notice.
is the first time this technology has been used to this extent in the
United States," Halfacre said. "This is essentially a wake-up call,
perhaps, to the less altruistic operators of community, of the industry,
that they need to get their act together."
targeted in Operation Swill include: Railroad Café, East Rutherford; The
Brick House, Wycoff; Sunset Tavern, Burlington; Graziano's Ristorante,
Chesilhurst; Villari's Lakeside, Gloucester Township; Yesterdays,
Marmora; TGI Friday's, West Orange; Italian Affair, Glassboro; Bells
Tavern, Lambertville; TGI Friday's, East Windsor; Brunswick Grove, East
Brunswick; TGI Friday's, Old Bridge; TGI Friday's, North Brunswick; TGI
Friday's, Piscataway; Murray's, Dover; TGI Friday's, East Hanover; Sona
Thirteen, Morristown; Blackthorn Restaurant, Parsippany; Ruby Tuesday,
Bridgewater; TGI Friday's, Linden; Applebee's, Kearny; Cucina Calandara,
Fairfield; TGI Friday's, Springfield; and TGI Fridays, Clifton.