There's no point in sugarcoating what happened in an Applebee's restaurant in Missouri the other day: an insulting, offensive action on the part of some employees against two black women customers--caught on video--that could have turned even uglier.

Now, after telling a local newspaper that it had "no indications this was race related," Applebee's has seemingly backtracked. 

It fired all three employees involved, shut down the restaurant in question temporarily, and tweeted an apology that condemned "racism, bigotry, or harassment of any nature."

It seems like a strong response on the surface. Maybe it's the most we can expect of a public company in 2018. But digging into the wording, it could have been a lot stronger.

Here's the underlying incident: Two women were eating dinner at the chain's franchise in Independence, Missouri, when a police officer interrupted them and told them they were being accused by employees of having "dined and dashed" at the same restaurant the previous evening. 

The women reacted with shock, saying they had never even been in the restaurant before. The employees reportedly said that the women resembled the culprits from the night before, because one of them was "skinny" and the other "wore makeup."

Ultimately, the restaurant ordered the women to pay for the meal they were eating, leave the restaurant, and never come back. The cop seemed to back up the employees, and even to laugh at the women for becoming emotional after they were accused of theft (apparently with no basis).

As mentioned, the women recorded much of the incident on their phones, and the video was posted to Facebook the next day. As of now, it has more than 3.6 million views. It's embedded below.

Applebee's, facing a potentially catastrophic social media storm, finally reacted (embedded at the end of this article).

How powerful and effective was the company's response? I thought it was very strong at first, but the more I reflect on it, the less credit I give, and I now come in at a C-. Here's what Applebee's said, and how it could have been better. 

1. The opening

We recognize the hurt and pain caused by the recent incident at an Applebee's restaurant in Independence, Missouri. We very much regret this occurred and sincerely apologize to our guests and community.

The two best words in the opening are "sincerely apologize." Anything short of a full-bodied apology now could have been fatal to the company. Applebee's was already behind, since the only statement up to then had doubted that anything racially motivated had happened. People who watched the video weren't having that, for the most part.

Applebee's is a publicly traded, billion-dollar company (officially owned by DineEquity) with many different stakeholders: investors, employees, and franchisees. The last thing in the world any company wants is to become embroiled in any way in a debate over racist conduct. So at least the company did apologize.

2. The corporate structure

After an internal investigation and in line with our values, the franchisee terminated the manager, server, and another employee involved in the incident. 

Here, I think we get into one of the thorny legal issues that Applebee's faced, which is that Applebee's doesn't actually own this restaurant; it has a local franchisee that is the actual owner. In fact, it was the franchisee, not "big Applebee's" that gave the initial statement suggesting this whole thing might not have been race-related. 

This is Applebee's problem to solve; the company doesn't get a pass on how its franchisees act just because it's decided this structure is more lucrative. But it is worth noticing.

3. The "racism" versus "racist" part

We do not tolerate racism, bigotry, or harassment of any nature, and we have taken additional steps to close the restaurant at this time in order for the team there to regroup, reflect, learn, and grow from this.

I have to admit, the first time I read this statement, I thought wow, that's bold: stepping up, taking responsibility, and calling the employees' actions racist! But reading this more closely, that's not what it does. Instead, it condemns "racism," which is about as uncontroversial a statement as I can imagine.

I'm guessing Applebee's lawyers would have vetoed language that actually admitted racism, since it might come back to bite the company in court. And closing the restaurant for a while seems like a good move--but reading this through a more critical lens, I wonder if Applebee's might have been afraid of this location attracting protestors. I want to give credit, but I'm a little bit skeptical.

4. The "here's what's next" part

We are reaching out to the guests involved to apologize directly. We know rebuilding trust with those affected by the incident will take time, and we look forward to finding resolution in the coming days.

Apologizing directly is a good and necessary step. And, yes, rebuilding trust will take time. The statement ends on a high note except for one important thing:

It's not signed. This is just amorphous "Applebee's" writing.

The CEO of the parent company is Stephen P. Joyce, and the brand president for Applebee's is John Cywinski. There's no reason to think that they wouldn't condemn what happened, but we don't know that for sure.

I don't see anywhere that either of their names is attached to the statement. (I've reached out to Applebee's for further comment.)

Again, Applebee's has a tough road to travel here: The company has to address this incident head-on, but also do so in a way that demonstrates the least risk to its shareholders, franchisees, employees, and customers--and in that order, probably, if we're being honest.

It's a high bar, and I don't envy Applebee's. But the company (and any company in this kind of situation) should set it and leap over it, if it wants an A for its response.

Here's the video, followed by Applebee's response:

Published on: Feb 14, 2018
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