Responding to sangria in the sippy cup

Too many companies faced with major communications crises respond like an armadillo under attack by a predator. They curl up in a ball and hope the danger will pass.

Not Texas Roadhouse, the Louisville-based restaurant chain whose friendly mascot is Andy Armadillo.

A media barrage hit the company like a pack of coyotes this week when a server at an Asheville, North Carolina restaurant mistakenly filled a toddler’s sippy cup with sangria instead of cranberry juice. From Australia to Zimbabwe, millions of people have heard or read news stories about little Gabriela Gilliam, the 2-year-old North Carolina girl who became the tipsy toddler.

By all accounts, it was an accident, a mistake, a human error. And most importantly, the curly-haired girl reportedly suffered no lasting effects from the incident. The question is whether Texas Roadhouse will fare as well.

In addition to hundreds of embarrassing news stories around the globe, Texas Roadhouse may face a lawsuit threat from the parents who apparently lingered over their meal for an hour before heading to the hospital with their daughter.

Based on preliminary accounts, Texas Roadhouse has handled the crisis with great responsibility and public relations skill.

The restaurant manager apologized for the mistake, called for an ambulance, accompanied the family to the hospital, comped the meal, provided gift certificates and offered to cover basic medical costs.

The company’s leadership and public relations have been open about the incident, admitting fault and promising to review procedures and training to avoid similar mistakes in the future. See full statement here:

“Unfortunately, we accidentally served sangria to the child. We are 100% in error and our employees have owned up to that fact. We do dispute some of the details that were reported as facts in the initial story, especially that the family went immediately to the hospital.   The child took a few sips of the product at approximately 8:30pm. After ordering, eating and celebrating a birthday, the family called 911 at approximately 9:30 p.m. and went to the hospital via ambulance around 10:00 p.m. This was nearly two hours after sipping from the cup.   Our manager went to the hospital with the family and the child was discharged somewhere around midnight without any illness from the alcohol. Her only symptoms were related to that of an upper respiratory infection, which the doctor diagnosed that night.   Our processes and procedures are designed to prevent this from happening, but unfortunately human error occurred. We are thankful that Gabriela is okay and we are taking this incident as an opportunity to improve our procedures in order to prevent this from occurring again.”

In many cases, the corporate lawyers stomp down common sense and communications professionals by enforcing a “no comment” response. The company looks guiltier because of the defensive, secretive approach. And an honest mistake takes on a dishonest flavor in an effort to protect shareholders.

When crises happen, consider these basic steps to preserve your reputation and your customers:

  1. Get the facts – Make sure you know the specifics before you start talking specifics.
  2. Respond quickly – Issue a limited statement based on limited facts and expand as you get the complete story.
  3. Don’t be afraid to accept responsibility – It’s OK to say you’re sorry. The public is forgiving even if lawyers are not.
  4. Do the right thing – Make amends for your error in a meaningful, sincere way.
  5. Learn from your mistakes – In addition to the policy or personnel changes that may be necessary, review your communications process after the fact to ensure everyone knows how to respond when the media glare is upon you.

Because Texas Roadhouse has taken the right steps, here’s my prediction: The company will write a check to the curly-haired toddler’s family that will pay for a lot of ribeyes. The little girl will suffer no lasting effects from her fruity cocktail, but not necessarily escape the damaging effects of the limelight. And the patrons of the steakhouse chain will forgive an honest company for an honest mistake.


Chad Carlton

C2 President

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