Saturday, April 08, 2006

Family Held Hostage At RED LOBSTER

Kay Guild and her three children were on that most exciting of shopping expeditions, buying beach shoes and sunscreen for spring break — and paying for the purchases by check. It was getting late, the kids were hungry, and they begged to stop at the Oakdale Minnesota Red Lobster for dinner. The Guilds, who are from Stillwater, were shopping in Woodbury. Since it was a long way home, Guild agreed, even though the family rarely eats out. They had a good meal — until the bill arrived. "I pulled out my checkbook to start writing a check," Guild recalled, and then the waitress told her the restaurant doesn't accept checks. Guild wasn't carrying enough cash to cover the $34.77 bill, plus she'd forgotten her debit card in the pocket of the slacks she'd worn the previous day. The sympathetic waitress assured her that a check would be fine this one time.
Kay Guild tried and was refused when she tried to write a check for a $34.77 meal at the Oakdale Red Lobster. "I was speechless. It was so embarrassing, in front of my kids," she says.
Then a manager arrived at her booth. He told Guild that he would not take a check, period, and that she was not leaving the restaurant until she settled the bill. He made no effort to lower his voice or to crouch to her level to keep the matter private, she said. Guild tried calling people who could bring her the money. But her husband was at work, many friends were already on spring-break trips, and her neighbors were 20 minutes away. She managed to contact one friend, but the woman's children were sick so she couldn't leave home. Banks were already closed. The family was sequestered in their booth while the manager informed her about a sign banning checks. But the sign was posted on the front door, she found out later, and she hadn't seen it because her oldest child had held the door open for the rest of the family when they entered the restaurant. The younger children were close to tears, Guild said, as was she. "I was horrified," she told reporters when she called to complain a few days later. "I felt like a criminal."
Theoretically, the Red Lobster manager could have called the cops, said Oakdale Police Chief Bill Sullivan. If a place doesn't take checks, that's the customer's legal problem. His best advice is not to plan to use a check anywhere; that's especially true in restaurants, he said, since many have given up pursuing bad checks. Even so, Sullivan said, "It'd be hard for me to imagine that they're going to tackle her in the parking lot. There probably were some other options. Nonetheless, the store's not in the wrong. It's just a question of how you want to handle it." Fortunately for Guild, a group in a nearby booth, who couldn't help but overhear the fuss, offered to help. Mike Leasure of Oakdale offered to pay Guild's bill in exchange for her check; she gratefully accepted. "The manager, he was way out of control in our opinion," Leasure said. "We asked him to step over to our table after she had left, and we told him that was uncalled for." The then-apologetic manager gave Leasure a free meal along with free desserts for everyone at the table. "We just walked out of there shaking our heads," Leasure said. But he'll check back weekly to see if the restaurant has made the "no checks" signage more prominent. That's also the recommendation of John McCullough, director of the Retailers Protection Association. A "no-checks" policy should be posted on the door, at the hostess stand and on the menu, he said. That could be especially necessary in Minnesota, which McCullough called a "very check-friendly state."
When Guild called Red Lobster headquarters the next day to complain, the operations director apologized and offered Guild a $35 gift certificate. Guild says she'll never set foot in a Red Lobster again but will forward the certificate to Leasure. Red Lobster spokeswoman Wendy Spirduso wouldn't comment on the situation but said the company will be looking at whether there's a better way to handle such incidents. Other options might have included having Guild leave her check and contact information; later, when she called in her debit-card number, the manager could have torn up the check. Or she could have left something of value, such as her wristwatch, until she returned to pay. Customers can't always depend on the kindness of strangers, which turned out to be Guild's salvation. "If it'd been anybody else in the booth, I'd still be there washing dishes," she said.