It’s Enough to Make Your Stomach Turn

It’s Enough to Make Your Stomach Turn

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, September 12, 2006; B01 (Washington Post)

Two Fairfax County officers lay mortally wounded in the parking lot of their Sully District police station. At the height of the crisis, anxious police cordoned off streets, closing down some businesses. The Texas Roadhouse restaurant just down the road had to shut its doors for a few hours that day in May and again on the next two Saturdays, when large crowds came out to honor the funeral processions for Detective Vicki Armel and Officer Michael Garbarino.

So what did the restaurant do in the police department’s time of loss? Offer to cater the funerals? Set up a food donation schedule for the bereaved families? Nah. The Texas Roadhouse in Chantilly counted up the pennies it had lost — a total of about $9,000, the manager computed — and turned to the police department with a formal request for compensation.

The restaurant even put it in writing. From the letter to the police by manager Eric Rainwater in mid-June: “Although this is miniscule in comparison to two officers losing their lives, it did have a major financial impact on our store.” Rainwater asked the police to dismiss $5,000 in fines that the restaurant had accumulated because its alarm system had repeatedly malfunctioned, summoning police for no reason.

“Any help you could give would be much appreciated,” Rainwater wrote.

The dictionary provides various definitions for “chutzpah,” such as effrontery, unbelievable gall and utter nerve. None of these words comes close to describing what happened here.

A remarkably restrained Capt. Susan Culin, commander of the Sully station, wrote a memo to her officers a couple of weeks ago “just to make you aware of the situation.” She said the business’s request was “in extremely poor taste” and added that “while we all have to make our own choices, I personally will never give the restaurant my business, or my family’s business, again.”

Culin, it goes without saying, told the department’s False Alarm Reduction Unit to instruct Texas Roadhouse to pay its fines.

Culin had called the restaurant’s corporate headquarters in Kentucky and noted that this mad display of selfishness came as other area businesses were staging fundraisers for the fallen officers’ families. For three weeks, Culin heard nothing back.

Finally, over the past couple of weeks, Texas Roadhouse has gotten the message and done all it can to make things right.

“We certainly can’t defend that letter in the least,” corporate spokesman Travis Doster told me. It took a couple of months for the parent office to set things straight because “we’re a very decentralized company” and there was “miscommunication” between the main office and the restaurant’s Virginia operation. “This is just one we totally, totally regret.”

Doster told me that Rainwater “has been disciplined, believe me. Rest assured it was fairly severe.” But Doster wouldn’t say how the manager was sanctioned, and the chain’s Virginia managers wouldn’t let me talk to Rainwater.

Texas Roadhouse’s chief executive, the son of a retired Virginia police officer, called Culin to apologize and sent a letter as well. And the company has made a donation to a trust fund for the families of the Fairfax officers. “Time will hopefully heal the wounds,” Doster said.

But although Fairfax police spokesman Mary Ann Jennings says the department has accepted the apology and the company “acted very graciously” once its top officials got involved, the gall of the original request continues to send waves of revulsion through the ranks of police everywhere. Cops are a tight brotherhood, and the Internet has enabled officers to lean on the electronic shoulders of comrades across the continent, so police chat boards are still buzzing about the restaurant’s behavior. Doster says Texas Roadhouse is still hearing from officers venting their anger.

“We’re hearing from people who want to boycott, and I’ve talked to a number of these guys on the phone and I gave them the facts,” Doster said. “To a man, they’re saying ‘Okay, that’s what I need to know.’ “

So the company may now be digging its way out of a pretty deep hole. But why did this happen? What could possibly drive a person to be so callous, so deeply selfish and greedy?

“Only Eric knows himself,” Doster said. “Just frustrations with his alarms or whatever.”

Or a blindness to others that we see all too often these days, even in businesses that rise or fall on customer satisfaction. A newsletter that advises corporations on crisis management dubbed the Texas Roadhouse incident a “case study in how to do it completely wrong.” But think about the people you know and how they respond when they think they have been cheated — think of the nasty e-mails they dash off, the angry calls, the righteous demands for compensation. Is what happened here really so inconceivable, so far from the kind of behavior we’ve come to accept in our daily lives?