New Jersey bar sting turns up 'swill'

TGI Friday's and Applebee's are among restaurants accused of swapping top-shelf booze for cheap alternatives.

By Jason Notte May 23, 2013 2:38PM
Bottles on Shelves in Bar (© Johner/Getty Images)Jerseyans have to put up with a lot: TV shows that portray them as orange, loudmouthed simpletons. New Yorkers just across the Hudson River disdaining them as "bridge and tunnel" people, storms like Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy flooding out their marshes and ravaging their beloved shore.

But restaurant chains like TGI Friday's and Applebee's (DIN) charging them premium prices for plastic-bottle liquor? Not for nothin', but that's a step too far.

New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control and the Division of Criminal Justice, in a joint investigation given the Jersey-blunt moniker "Operation Swill," spent a year looking into whether bars were substituting premium liquor brands with more generic spirits for their drinks to hike profits. According to New Jersey's News 12, 29 restaurants and bars -- including 13 TGI Friday's locations -- had their liquor inventory seized as a result.

The TGI Friday's restaurants that were cited are owned by Briad Group in Livingston, N.J., whose website says it owns 70 TGI Friday's outlets in seven states. That group deflected questions from The Associated Press to TGI Friday's Inc. That company then issued a statement saying it was working with the franchisee and owner of the TGI Friday's restaurants to investigate the "serious" allegations the company said it only recently learned about.

While independent bars and restaurants were also cited, TGI Friday's wasn't the only chain with implicated New Jersey locations. According to a list obtained by News 12, an Applebee's location in Kearny and a Ruby Tuesday (RT) in Bridgewater also had their liquor seized for swapping out the good stuff with budget booze.

Authorities didn't go label by label indicating which brands were substituted, but they noted that customers at the offending restaurants paid for "top-shelf" liquor and got generics in their glasses.

So how does an investigation like this even come about? Because New Jersey barflies know their liquor. Authorities said numerous complaints from customers with discriminating palates forced their hand.

Meanwhile, the more than 100 investigators assigned to the operation, with help from covert informants, secretly took samples from every targeted bar and restaurant and had them tested -- presumably not a shot at a time.

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May 23, 2013 4:00PM
Lesson = don't buy expensive alcohol at a bar or restaurant. Go to Costco and get a bottle far cheaper.
May 23, 2013 2:46PM
No ****. Why do you think hotels employ food and beverage managers?
May 23, 2013 2:50PM
You don't need covert informants. All you need to know is whether or not there is a bar manager, that's why they are there, to refill the empty Absolut bottle with Skol vodka.
May 24, 2013 8:28PM

The refilling of name brand liquor bottles with generic cheap liquor has been happening across this country since I began working in the business in the nineteen seventies. It happens mostly in privately owned places like taverns,pubs,dance clubs and banquet halls. I have never worked for any "large" corporation in the food and beverage business that practiced this very bad and illegal process. The profit margins on liquor have decreased heavily since the sixties and seventies,and many unsavory owners love to fill their patrons with cheap swill, instead of the real good stuff,although it is coming out of the upscale bottle when poured.I have to admit that I am surprised a corporate store like Fridays would not know their franchisee was switching the liquor.It really puts the parent company in a tight spot. If they found out that it was happening in Jersey,it certainly is happening in many other places across the United States.The profit margins are much higher pouring a rail(bar scotch) out of a Dewar's or Johnnie walker bottle. Good luck trying to track them all down. I know at least ten bars in my area where that switch is pulled and I do not frequent those establishments ever. By the way,the Fridays in my city doesn't fake their liquors ,so you cannot generalize that each company does it, because you have found one illegal owner that is cheating his guests. I'm sure there are hundreds ,if not thousands of places that sell the cheap booze for high prices and refill bottles.As illegal as it gets.



May 24, 2013 5:03PM
Lol and if there were no rules this would be common practice and no way to punish the offenders.
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