Denny's $72 Million Hamburger

April 01, 1994

The latest Denny's incident doesn't involve racism so much as some of the most dubious customer relations ever documented. The customer is always right, yes? Not in the case of Sheryl Neal and Cashmere Hardy, who refused to pay a $7.09 bill after what they say was a disgusting food experience and were carted off to jail as a result.

Ms. Neal alleges that on July 3, 1992, she found a long hair in her waffles at the Denny's restaurant in Severn and sent them back. Something like this has happened before in thousands of establishments. Usually the personnel are apologetic, and the manager brings a fresh plate to ensure the customer's good will. But that's not what allegedly happened at Denny's.

According to a lawsuit filed by Ms. Neal and Mr. Hardy, the night manager, William G. Barrett, returned the offending plate to Ms. Neal, saying the hair didn't belong to him or the waitresses, so it had to be hers.

Ms. Neal and Mr. Hardy balked at paying for either her waffles or his hamburger -- evidently figuring that both their dining experiences had been ruined. But the manager insisted they had to pay for the hamburger. When they refused, he called the police, who arrested them and plunked them in separate jail cells for the night. Theft charges were dropped three months later.

Denny's attorney, Frank Laws, defends the restaurant's behavior with this excuse: "If everybody who came in with a $7 check decided they didn't want to pay, it would be pretty hard to make a living." Look at it another way. If Denny's had done the wise thing and had eaten the cost of the burger, it would be out all of $7.09. Instead, the restaurant faces one of those tort actions that our litigious society encourages -- a $72 million lawsuit and enough bad publicity to cost plenty more.

To make matters worse, this suit comes a year after the Annapolis Denny's attracted nationwide attention when six black Secret Service agents claimed they were denied service. There is no evidence that the hair-in-the-waffles incident was racially motivated, but the fact that the plaintiffs are black doesn't help Denny's image. We don't know whether race was involved here, or whether it was just an establishment that didn't know how to treat its customers.

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