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T.G.I. Friday’s to pay $500,000 in ‘Operation Swill’ bust on cheap booze

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A franchisee of T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants in New Jersey that were raided raided in May as part of “Operation Swill” will pay a fine of $500,000 and not contest charges that eight of its restaurants were serving customers cheap booze being passed off as premium liquor.

“This unlawful practice took advantage of consumers who were cheated out of what they thought they were purchasing,” said Acting New Jersey Attorney General John J. Hoffman, adding that he hopes the fine sends “a clear message” that customers “should get what they pay for every time without exception.”

ABC and Division of Criminal Justice Investigators raided 13 T.G.I. Friday’s owned by the Briad Group during the first round of “Operation Swill.”

They seized roughly 250 bottles of vodka, gin, rum, scotch, whiskey and tequila from the baker’s dozen of restaurants, including a T.G.I. Friday’s on Route 17 in Wood-Ridge and another on Route 3 in Clifton.

The investigation led to charges against eight of the establishments — in  West Orange, East Windsor, Old Bridge, Piscataway, Freehold, Marlboro, Hazlet and Linden.

As part of the settlement, Briad will employ an ABC-appointed monitor through June 30, 2014.

The compliance officer “will have the full cooperation of Briad’s restaurants and its employees, as well as access to all books, records, compensation programs and any other information the monitor deems appropriate,” Hoffman said.

The compliance officer will then report his or her findings to the ABC.

Briad also has agreed to “internal changes” that include updating employee training and inventory software.

The company will pay the ABC $400,000 for its violations plus $100,000 for investigative costs, Hoffman said.

In addition, five-day suspensions for each establishment will be held in abeyance until June 30, 2014; those days will be dismissed if there are no further drink-substituting charges.

“Drink substitution threatens the integrity of the alcoholic beverage industry, and retailers, wholesalers and customers all lose because of this illegal activity,” state ABC Director Michael Halfacre said today.

More than 100 state investigators raided 29 bars and restaurants — including the Railroad Café in East Rutherford and The Brick House in Wyckoff  — during the first offensive in May.

Besides seizing roughly 1,000 bottles of inventory, they served demand notices.

The move followed a year-long investigation into what New Jersey authorities said was the substitution of premium alcoholic beverage brands with “well brand spirits” — as in: bottom-shelf booze — in an effort to fool the customer and increase their profits.

Authorities said the probe began with citizen complaints. It employed not only confidential informants but “new technology used to test samples taken covertly from the licensed establishments,” they said.

Roughly 150 samples were taken in January and February when ABC investigators visited 63 licensed establishments across the state.

The undercover ABC detectives secretly visiting the joints ordered their spirits “neat” (no ice or mixer).

The Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control has a toll-free hotline for citizens to report illegal activity to ABC’s Investigative Unit: 1-866-713-8392 . All information received via the ABC hotline will remain confidential, authorities said.

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