TGI Fridays in New Jersey fined $500,000 for serving cheap booze

TRENTON, N.J.  -- An operator of TGI Fridays restaurants in New Jersey has agreed to pay a $500,000 fine for serving customers cheap booze when they paid for top shelf.

Acting Attorney General John Hoffman said Wednesday that the fine levied against Livingston-based Briad Group, as a result of an investigation dubbed Operation Swill, should send a message to every bar and restaurant in the state that customers should always get what they pay for.

Under terms of the settlement, Briad agreed not to contest charges that eight of its restaurants were selling customers cheap substitutes in place of premium alcohol. It also agreed to employ a state-appointed monitor through June 14 to ensure its restaurants and employees are in compliance.

As long as there are no further violations during that period, the businesses will avoid five-day suspensions of their liquor licenses, the attorney general said.

The fine includes $400,000 for the violations and $100,000 to cover investigative costs.

The Briad Group issued a statement saying it had cooperated fully in the investigation, initiated new training programs and "redoubled our efforts to ensure that all of our restaurants adhere to Fridays' extensive bar and beverage standards."

The franchisee also faces a lawsuit in state court by two women who claim Briad had instituted a uniform policy to substitute cut-rate liquor for premium brands for over at least a year, in violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. It seeks reimbursement for all customer losses and punitive damages of three times the price of each drink.

Twenty-nine establishments, including 13 TGI Fridays, had been accused of cheating customers following state raids in May. The attorney general's office said the state decided to pursue charges against only eight of the TGI Fridays. The other cases remain under investigation.

At one of the 29 businesses, a mixture that included rubbing alcohol and caramel coloring was sold as scotch. In another, premium liquor bottles were refilled with water that was not even clean. The state never identified which restaurants or bars those were.

The establishments were chosen for enforcement action as a result of information from confidential informants, consumer complaints and samples taken by undercover investigators earlier in the year, state officials said.

The eight TGI Fridays included in the settlement are in West Orange, East Windsor, Old Bridge, Piscataway, Freehold, Marlboro, Hazlet and Linden.

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