September 26th, 2016

The facts are not really in dispute:  A Bessemer, Alabama, police officer posted on Facebook that a Sonic employee clearly refused to serve him when he drove up in his uniform:

“Never thought I would experience this. I tried to get a small ice cream at Sonic in Bessemer while I was on duty. When the girl making it saw me pull up to the window in a Police vehicle, she set my ice cream down and walked off and just ignored me being there. Then she brought food to people behind me in line still just ignoring me. Then after several minutes another employee asked her about my order. She just ignored him. He then finished putting ice cream in my cup. He tried to give it to her to bring to me and she refused to serve me. Unbelievable.”

It is always a serious accusation when anyone is refused service at any place of business, but Sonic’s tepid response to a crisis where one of its employees clearly refused service to a police officer left a lot to be desired.

Keep in mind, this is a major company that has grown to 3,526 restaurants in 43 states since its founding in 1953.  Revenues were $606 million in 2015. It has a lot to lose by appearing to shun the police community.

In fact, its corporate response was absolutely ridiculous considering the potential gravity of the situation.

“Thank you for contacting us about the drive-in in Bessemer, Ala. At SONIC, everyone is welcome and we especially appreciate the men and women police officers who keep our communities safe. Since learning of the allegation, the franchisee who owns and operates the drive-in began an immediate investigation and found that the drive-in was understaffed during this time. 

“The franchisee has worked with the police officer and the chief of police to ensure this misunderstanding will not affect the positive relationship that this drive-in has with the community of Bessemer.”

Really? An employee clearly refused to serve a police officer and Sonic is using the lame excuse the drive-in was simply understaffed?  Most people would feel this response would never have flown if anyone (particularly a minority) was refused service.  But it is okay when the police are involved?

In essence, the company is saying the police officer was lying about being ignored and others being served ahead of him. It was just a staffing issue?  Really?

Sonic should have responded much more firmly to the crisis communications issue.  Something along the lines of:

“At Sonic we will not tolerate any of these alleged actions against any member of the community.  We are currently interviewing everyone involved with this incident if we determine they did this deliberately those involved will be suspended and/or terminated.  We are particularly upset that this may have occurred involving a police officer while serving our community. We do not want this to affect the great working relationship we have had over the years with the Bessemer Police Department and police departments across the nation and are taking this charge very seriously.”

The Web site Bluelivesmatter  aimed at police across the country and supporters of police, was outraged by Sonic’s response.

“The company’s statement doesn’t match the officer’s account of events. Being short-staffed doesn’t explain why the person couldn’t take a couple of seconds to finish filling the ice cream cup that they had already started, and then hand it to the officer,” noted the site. “Instead the employee started serving the people in line behind him at a drive-thru window. Keep in mind, the officer’s order involved partially filling a cup with ice-cream, not cooking an entire meal.”

A communications crisis can arise virtually any time with a business.  How it is handled can make a major difference in customers’ views for a long, long time.   Sonic’s response was clearly not strong enough and could very well backfire.

In fact, as news of this event continues to spread on social media the company should pray there is not an organized boycott by police and supporters.


3 Responses

  1. Kevin says:

    This reminds me of the Olive Garden incident in which a uniformed police officer was kicked out of the restaurant for having a holstered firearm. The PR folks are called in to write a statement, but nothing demonstratively changes.

  2. Pat Carlson says:

    Customer service everywhere is at an all-time low. Also, I bet Sonic is far more worried about upset for disciplining the worker (“for exercising her rights!”) than losing a few customers by giving a non-excuse to a police officer.

  3. John E. Beck says:

    Hi Pat…
    I agree with one sterling exception – Chick-fil-a.

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