Last Thursday, after a night of drinking, South Carolina resident Alex Bowen decided to grab something to eat in the early hours of the morning. He headed to Waffle House, a popular Southern chain open 24 hours a day, only to wait at the counter for several minutes without being greeted by a single staff member.

Determined to get his meal, he explored the restaurant and found an employee fast asleep in a booth. At that point, Bowen took matters into his own hands. "They looked tired, they were sleeping," he told WOLO-TV, an ABC affiliate in Columbia. "I was like, 'Go ahead and rest fam. I got this.'" Bowen walked behind the grill and made his favorite: a double Texas bacon cheesesteak melt with extra pickles.

He documented his late night adventure on his Facebook page, and it quickly went viral.

As the matter drew national attention, the Waffle House public relations team knew silence was no longer an option. Waffle House director of public relations Pat Warner responded by releasing this statement to WOLO-TV:

"We're glad Alex was able to enjoy his Texas Bacon Cheesesteak. We've apologized to Alex and have invited him back to eat with us. We also promised him we'd do the cooking the next time."

That short, playful statement was the perfect response. Here's why:

They refrained from retaliation.

When you or your brand gets smacked with public humiliation, it's often wise to avoid the knee-jerk urge to retaliate.

Yes, the customer entered an area he knew he didn't belong. And yes, an intoxicated patron operating one of their grills was a serious liability. But any aggressive action toward the customer would have created a colossal public relations nightmare.

The backlash from the public, press and social media would have been intense and unforgiving. They made the right move by apologizing to Bowen rather than antagonizing him.

They got in on the joke...

When your brand becomes part of a punchline, sometimes it's best to join in on the fun. By taking a lighthearted approach to their response, Waffle House has been able to brush off criticism. The company has even been able to sit back and enjoy the free publicity sparked by the incident.

...but they didn't overdo it.

Rather than re-tweeting every article about the situation or otherwise gloating in the national spotlight, Waffle House kept its corporate response light and pithy -- and then got right back to business. It's important for brands to have fun in these types of situations, but that shouldn't come at the expense of your credibility. Instead, Waffle House delivered the Goldilocks response: not too serious, not too silly (or tacky) but just right.

In the smartphone age, any person or brand can go viral under the right circumstances -- for better or worse. Not everyone, however, has the smart public relations instincts Waffle House put on display this week.

In the end, one fearless customer became a hero, and one 24-hour food chain will likely enjoy a short-term spike in late-night business.