Kempner: Price of an ugly incident? Waffle House, Starbucks heartburn

It doesn’t look like a threatened national boycott and sit-ins of Waffle House are getting big traction.

The largest local sit-in drew about 20 people on Sunday to one metro Atlanta Waffle House, according to an organizer for the Alliance for Black Lives. But the Georgia-based restaurant chain had already endured a social media hurricane over the incident that sparked the protest calls.

A black woman customer, who complained about a 50-cent charge for plastic utensils, ended up partially disrobed and on the floor of an Alabama Waffle House as police tried to subdue her.

Witnesses told police she appeared to be drunk, refused to leave alcohol outside and threatened violence. In other words, stuff you aren’t surprised to hear goes on inside a Waffle House at 2 or 3 in the morning.

Meanwhile, the upscale coffee chain Starbucks experienced a more powerful backlash after two black men were hauled off in handcuffs as they waited for a business meeting at a Philadelphia unit. Pretty much all that hipster chic Starbucks and “Hey, Hon” Waffle House have in common is they both serve coffee.

Both incidents raised questions about race, customer relations and police actions.

They also spotlight the boundless opportunities for a single incident to put an entire chain in a bad light nationally. With so many outlets and customer interactions, it’s hard to completely eliminate one-on-one human knuckleheadedness and missteps.

But they had better try as if their waffles depended on it.

Norcross-based Waffle House has more than 1,900 stores, which is more than any other full-service restaurant in the nation, according to Technomic. They stay open 24 hours, creating around-the-clock opportunities to delight and infuriate customers — including some late-night revelers who are attracted to Waffle House like buzzed flies to syrup.

If it’s 2 a.m., assume there’s trouble brewing at a Waffle House somewhere.

Starbucks has about 175,000 U.S. employees and, I’m sure, millions of daily interactions with customers.

If things go wrong, assume it will be captured on video and shared widely for semi-eternity.

The Starbucks case eventually looked like a train wreck by store employees who should have known better.

The coffee chain’s CEO apologized and said police should not have been called. The chain typically allows customers to hang out without purchasing anything. Philadelphia’s police commissioner also apologized.

Starbucks announced it will close stores for a day of racial bias training.

But on further review, the Waffle House situation looks less obvious that employees actually did anything wrong.

Sit-ins planned Friday in the southern Alabama county where the original incident occurred didn’t get much turnout, according to one report.

Gerald Griggs, a metro Atlanta attorney who was involved in organizing two Atlanta area sit-ins, said he expects to hold another one soon.

Waffle House’s CEO also has agreed to meet with him.

I spoke with a few people in a small contingent of protesters gathered at the Norcross headquarters recently. I asked about their own experiences at Waffle House prior to becoming unhappy and disappointed with the chain.

Some had been regulars at the restaurants.

Nicole Borden, a speaker, author and “liberator to empower people,” told me she wrote much of her book in Waffle Houses, often without buying anything to eat or drink. She and the other protesters I spoke with – all of whom were black – said they didn’t recall ever being mistreated there.

But some said the Alabama incident demonstrates the company’s need to improve training or hiring. Also, they said, Waffle House must publicly criticize the actions of police. To them, the incidents exemplify problems that stretch beyond a single incident and a single company.

John Jackson, a DeKalb County resident, told me he doesn’t know whether Waffle House employees did anything wrong. But he said his experience knocking on neighborhood doors for political campaigns has convinced him that people are quicker to call police on black people.

And he said he’s certain the video shows that police officers were unnecessarily rough with the woman, even if she was resistant.

“I don’t think everyone in Waffle House is toxic,” he said. “I think Waffle House needs to learn how to be on the right side of an issue.”

The video shot by a friend of the woman appeared to show police struggling to get her to comply. She appeared to be pushed to the ground, her breasts becoming exposed as her top slipped down. The video shows a police officer saying he would break her arm as she appeared to resist.

Waffle House, which earlier invited protesters into its headquarters, completed its own review and concluded that its employees were right to call police.

Witnesses told police said that the customer cursed at Waffle House employees and suggested she might “come back here and shoot this place up of I need to.”

The woman’s supporters deny she was unruly.

But if she did threaten to get her gun, I get why employees would call the cops.

A customer pulled a gun at a Waffle House in metro Atlanta last year when his order was messed up, police say. And a year earlier a customer who was asked to put out a cigarette in a Mississippi Waffle House retrieved a gun from his vehicle and shot an employee dead. 

Isolated bad incidents are hard to forget.

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