Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Chili's Cold Reception To a Black Vet

U.S. Army veteran Ernest Walker
The latest example of overt bigotry based on an individual's race or ethnicity linked to Donald Trump is a Texas-sized doozy.

African-American Army vet Ernest Walker goes to a local Chili's in Cedar Hill, Texas with his registered service dog last Friday for the free meal the restaurant chain offers to military vets on Veterans Day.

He orders his meal, eats, then asks the waitress to pack up the rest to go as he has to leave and pick up his wife; he tips her.

Then according to Walker's Facebook page, an older white man wearing a Trump t-shirt walks up, sees Walker sitting there with his service dog, proceeds to question him about his service and then tells the young white manager of the restaurant, Wesley Patrick, that he doesn't think Walker is a real vet.

Patrick comes over to Walker's table and verbally confronts Walker, basically accuses him of lying about his service to get a free meal; Walker politely shows the suspicious manager his government-issued military ID and military discharge papers - but the manager still doesn't believe him.

A verbal exchange ensues until Patrick reaches down and grabs the container with Walker's to-go food in it and takes it away from him; video of the exchange was caught on Walker's cell phone and posted on Youtube where it's now been seen hundreds of thousands of times.

Blowback for this deplorable treatment of a military veteran on Veteran's Day was swift, local protesters were picketing with signs in front of the restaurant by the next day, by Sunday the reaction on social media and news of the incident prompted a response from Chili's which issued a statement with a rather tepid apology for the incident and the behavior of manager Wesley Patrick.

Chili's manager Wesley Patrick
Video of this incident would've sparked outrage even if it had taken place before the election of Trump.

But in light of the sharp increase of overt incidents of hate against members of the Muslim, African-American, LGBTQ and Hispanic communities since last Tuesday, Patrick's treatment of Walker bears more scrutiny.

As do the training practices and management policies of the restaurant chain he works for.

A veteran who served his country honorably was dehumanized and embarrassed (his words) in one of their restaurants because an embittered old man wearing a Trump t-shirt questioned the service record of a total stranger minding his own business.

How have people have reacted?

Take a look at some of the thousands of comments that have been posted on the Facebook page of Chili's Grill & Bar by folks of different racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Wesley Patrick has been removed from his position as manager of the Cedar Hill Chili's, but my sense is that's not going to be enough for Chili's or its parent company Brinker International.

Chili's Pres./CEO Kelli Valade
The Catholic Church scandals have taught us that simply moving the pedophile priest to another parish doesn't solve the deeper institutional problems that allowed him to molest children in the first place; it just gives the priest a chance to molest more children in another parish.

In no way am I equating the molestation of a child with the actions of an incompetent manager in a restaurant, but many people are not going to be satisfied until Patrick is fired and Chili's takes concrete steps to apologize to Walker in a meaningful way.

Late Monday afternoon Kelli Valade, the president and CEO of Chili's did release a public statement, and the company deserves a measure of credit for accepting responsibility for the debacle.

But as someone whose worked as a copywriter and in a corporate communications capacity, the statement struck me as a bit canned and generic.

Like some PR hack in a cubicle in their corporate communications department opened up a "crisis apology" template in Word, polished the text and emailed it to Valade's assistant to run by "legal" for a quick review before sending it out.

Obviously it was meant to demonstrate that the company was aware of the situation and the public reaction to it; but to a degree I think Chili's got schooled in the power of social media in the same way that some police departments have in the face of evidence captured by an individual with a cell phone camera that conflicts with  the account of an officer who knows he or she screwed up but is trying to cover their ass.

Chili's TV commercials are slick, the menus are colorful, and the food is pretty decent as far as franchises go - but the brand was still soiled by what's on that segment of cell phone video.

Someone sets fire to their New Balances
No $500,000 television ad buy during the half-time of the Super Bowl is going to just wash away the impression of how Wesley Patrick treated Ernest Walker on Veterans Day.

And I guarantee you that in the current climate of growing consumer activism against companies that appear to be aligned with the hate and bigotry peddled by Trump, there are a sizable number of people who will consciously choose not to go to Chili's in the coming weeks of the Thanksgiving and holiday season specifically because of this incident.

Just ask Matthew LeBretton, the VP of Public Affairs of New Balance whose klutzy ill-timed pro-Trump comments after the election has sparked people to post video of themselves burning their New Balance shoes on Youtube.

So Kelli Valade is going to have to roll up her sleeves and do some work to assure the public that Chili's customers will not be treated differently because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their ethnicity or religion based on the word of a racist Trump supporter who happens to be in the restaurant - or by some bush league manager with a sketchy political agenda, no customer service skills and a cheesy goatee.

The Website of Chili's parent company Brinker International boasts that it owns over 1,600 restaurants in the U.S. and around the world and that "Our guests know that every time they step into our restaurants, we'll give them a warm welcome...while making people feel special."

Those words ring pretty hollow in the wake of Ernest Walker being interrogated about his military record with his service dog at his feet on Veterans Day.

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