Inside the Arby's Customer Service Blow-up

An Arby's in Pembroke Pines, Florida made national headlines last week after a customer was allegedly refused service because she was a police officer.

The public backlash was swift and severe. 

There was a small protest, a call for a national boycott of Arby's, and an apology from the Arby's Chief Executive Officer. A manager at the Arby's was fired. Another employee was placed on temporary paid leave.

Police officers put their lives on the line every day to protect and serve our communities. They deserve our respect. This is a terrible customer service story.

It's also not entirely true.

The customer, Pembroke Pines Police Sergeant Jennifer Martin, was never refused service. That small, but crucial detail, has gotten lost in the media hysteria. 

There's still plenty of lessons to be learned here. This post is a breakdown of the situation. 

 Image credit: Arby's

Image credit: Arby's

The Incident

Sergeant Martin entered the drive thru line at the Arby's on September 1 and placed her order with an employee named Kenneth Davenport.

She drove around to the window where Davenport took her credit card. The Arby's manager, Angel Mirabal, then approached the window and told Martin (in reference to Davenport), "He doesn't want to serve you because you are a police officer."

Mirabal handed Martin her order, but the incident made her uncomfortable. She was particularly concerned about the condition of her food, so she decided to go inside and request a refund.

There doesn't appear to be any disagreement about this much of the story. It was documented in an informational offense report that Sergeant Martin filed with the Pembroke Pines Police Department. It was also corroborated by Davenport in an interview posted by the CBS affiliate in Miami.

Neither Martin or Davenport ever state that Martin was actually denied service. She paid for her food and received her food. 

Martin's report stated that she felt Davenport was slightly rude to her when she placed her order. She chalked it up to a problem with the speaker system since she was also having trouble hearing him. She understandably became uncomfortable when the manager said that Davenport didn't want to serve her because she was a cop.

So, why didn't Davenport serve Martin? He told reporters that he was busy serving other customers. "I just couldn't take her order. So, I asked my manager for help."

It's the manager that's really at the center of this incident. A reporter asked Davenport, "You weren't involved really, were you?"

"Not at all," Davenport said. "I just couldn't take her order at the moment."

Davenport claimed that Mirabal's statement was a joke. "We don't hate cops," said Davenport. "We don't hate anybody. We were just trying to get people out of the drive thru."

It seems clear that Martin received poor service. And, it's understandable that she was uncomfortable with the situation. She asked for a refund and then documented the experience.

What came next blew it up.


The Fallout

Accounts of the incident began popping up on Facebook later that evening. Here's an example:

Tonight one of my fellow officers was refused service at the Arby's located at 11755 Pines Blvd, because she was a...

Posted by Courtney Veski Bryson on Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Notice it claims that the officer (presumably Martin) was refused service. 

The next day, the Pembroke Pines Police Department issued a press release. The opening line of the statement is telling:

The Pembroke Pines Police Department was made aware of an incident that occurred on the evening of 09/01/2015 where one of our uniformed officers was denied service at a local Arby's (11755 Pines Blvd) due to being a police officer.

There's an obvious discrepancy here. Sergeant Martin's report clearly indicates that she paid for her food and received it, so she wasn't actually denied service. However, the official department statement says she was denied service.

I emailed Pembroke Pines Police Chief Dan Giustino to ask about this discrepancy, but he did not respond.

The Broward County police union issued a statement the same day calling for a national boycott of Arby's. It also called for the manager to be fired. 

Their statement stretched the truth even further, stating "a uniformed police officer was refused service by a manager at the drive-through window."

In a press release posted on Facebook, Dade County police union president John Rivera expressed his indignation that an officer was refused service. He called for the employees involved to be terminated.

There was even a small protest outside the Arby's:

The media took the story and ran with it. 

It was covered on local and national television broadcasts. The USA Today used the headline, "Arby's Apologizes After Employee Refuses to Serve Police Officer."

All of this hinged around a false claim that an officer was denied service. 


Reaction From Arby's

Viral service failures like this are difficult for companies. This incident involved two employees at one Arby's. That restaurant is one of over 3,300 Arby's worldwide. 

To their credit, Arby's reacted swiftly.

Their CEO, Paul Brown, called Pembroke Pines Police Chief Giustino to apologize. Their conversation evidently cleared the air and satisfied Giustino since his department issued another press release stating the issue was now closed. 

The company then announced that uniformed police officers could eat for free at Dade-Broward metro area Arby's on September 4.

Finally, they quickly concluded their internal investigation of the incident. The manager, Angel Mirabal, was terminated. Kenneth Davenport was placed on temporary paid leave.

There was an interesting statement in that press release

We ultimately found that the crew member in this case was not involved other than to attempt to remedy the situation.

Arby's own investigation correctly placed the blame on Mirabal, not Davenport. It was Mirabal who made the unfortunate statement. It was also Mirabal who was in a position of leadership and needed to set a better example.

So, why was Davenport placed on temporary paid leave? That part is unknown. A request for comment from Arby's went unanswered.


Lessons Learned

I'm left with two strong opinions based on the statements from Martin and Davenport.

First, Martin had every right to feel uncomfortable with the service she received. Mirabal's statement to her was reprehensible. I find no fault in her decision to request a refund and write a report about the incident. 

Second, Davenport is a victim of hysteria. He's a 19 year-old fast food worker who has been unfairly cast as a villain in the national spotlight for something he didn't do.

There are also a few customer service lessons here:

  • Small service failures can lead to a big mess.
  • Your employees represent your brand.
  • People will exaggerate to make small issues seem big.

It's that last lesson that really sticks. 

Take out the false refusal of service narrative and you're left with poor service and a stupid statement from a manager. It doesn't warrant press releases from the police department and two police unions. It certainly doesn't make national headlines.

The incident sounds far more egregious if an officer was refused service.

That's why this all comes down to Mirabal. He was the manager. He had multiple opportunities to prevent it. He didn't.