After Pastor Alois Bell left the message "I give God 10% Why do you get 18" on a credit card slip for her waitress, another server named Chelsea Welch posted a picture of it on Reddit. Outraged internet sleuths managed to decipher Bell's name and outed her online.
But by exposing Bell, web vigilantes also ended up getting Welch fired. That had two consequences. First, Welch is -- of course -- unemployed. Gut Check spoke with the Tower Grove South resident about what her plans for the future are. Second, it unleashed the internet's fury on Applebee's.
To make a bad situation even worse, whoever handles the chain's social-media accounts compounded the damage by allegedly deleting comments, releasing several shrill, panicked-sounding responses and basically not knowing when to quit.
When Gut Check spoke with Welch on Friday afternoon, she seemed in good spirits about the debacle but also had practical things to worry about.
"At this point this isn't even about the receipt anymore. It's not about the story. It's not about this pastor -- I need to find a job," she said. "I have no bad feelings toward this woman."
Welch was raised in southern Illinois and says she started waiting tables hoping to earn enough money to go to college without taking on debt. She says she knows that going to college is the only way she's going to get out of the service industry (at the same time noting ruefully that one of the kitchen workers at her former job had a master's degree).
"Restaurant workers, at the end of the day they want out," she said. "They hope for a job where they're going to be respected, paid a predictable wage, where they can count on it."
Since the story went viral, Welch says, she has had job offers from businesses in California and Canada, but nothing local. Several Facebook groups and petitions are demanding that Applebee's hire her back (this one has over 8,000 signatures) -- Welch wouldn't say whether she'd take her job back if it was offered. She says she has had sympathizers offer her money.
"As a broke kid trying to get into college it's certainly appealing," she said. "But I would much rather people hold on to that money for the next time they eat out."
She says the outpouring of support has been "astounding" but emphasizes that this Applebee's is not the only restaurant where servers are getting stiffed.
"I do want people to know my situation is not that uncommon and while it's garnered a lot of media attention, this happens to service workers everyday. Harsh notes, bad tips, getting fired to keep a customer happy. This happens to all of us, all the time, everywhere," she said.
Meanwhile, it seems that while heat is easing up on Pastor Bell and Welch, Applebee's is getting torched on social media. And the company isn't doing itself any favors with its response. It's going to be tough to do a better job than R.L. Stollar, who compiled the entire PR fiasco with screengrabs here, but here's a quick rundown.
This was Applebee's initial statement. They probably should've just cut it off here:
Our Guests' personal information - including their meal check - is private, and neither Applebee's nor its franchisees have a right to share this information publicly. We value our Guests' trust above all else. Our franchisee has apologized to the Guest and has taken disciplinary action with the Team Member for violating their Guest's right to privacy. This individual is no longer employed by the franchisee.
Instead they began responding to everything via Facebook. Reportedly this post appeared at 3 a.m., then disappeared, then reappeared through Facebook magic. It said, in part:
Here is what happened in St. Louis: - A guest questioned the tip automatically attached to her large party's bill by writing: "I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?" on the check.
- A different server, who did not even wait on the group, photographed the receipt, posted the photo online and commented about the incident.
- The guest subsequently heard from friends who identified her from the posting, where her name is clearly visible, and the restaurant was notified. There was no further communication with the guest.
- The team member was asked about posting the receipt and admitted she was responsible.
- When she was hired, the team member was provided the franchisee's employee hand book which includes their social media policy and states:
"Employees must honor the privacy rights of APPLEBEE's and its employees by seeking permission before writing about or displaying internal APPLEBEE'S happenings that might be considered to be a breach of privacy and confidentiality. This shall include, but not be limited to, posting of photographs, video, or audio of APPLEBEE'S employees or its customers, suppliers, agents or competitors, without first obtaining written approval from the Vice President of Operations. The policy goes on to specify: Employees who violate this policy will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.
- As a result of her admission to violating a clear company policy intended to safeguard guests, the team member is no longer employed by the franchisee.
That post racked up 20,000 comments, including some claiming that previous comments had been deleted.
"Do you think deleting people's comments is going to make this go away?" wrote one interlocutor. "Only making it worse."
Next, someone at Applebee's dove in and commenced reacting to individual comments, cutting and pasting the same statement over and over until one user gave the sage advice, "Applebee's, just shut up."
No such luck. Instead someone at the company posted this statement:
As a company that relies on literally hundreds of thousands of incredibly hard working Team Members, we can assure you that we and our franchisees value and support them and their efforts. However this unfortunate situation has nothing to do with work. The Team Member involved did not wait on the guest or party. Regrettably, and without the restaurant's knowledge, she took it upon herself to take a Guest's receipt, with the name clearly visible, and posted it online with her own commentary. That is a clear violation of our Guest's privacy and against the franchisee's company policy that the Team Member was provided when hired. We simply cannot accept behavior that compromises the safety and privacy our Guests have every right to expect and deserve. Please note that we are also not excusing the Guest's behavior in this matter and the unacceptable comment she wrote on the receipt, which is offensive to us and all our hard working team members. To be clear, the 18% gratuity added to large party tickets was paid by the Guest's party. This is a regrettable situation, and we wish it had never happened. we hope this provides you with some additional insight. Thanks again for the chance to explain.
Many online commenters are promising an Applebee's boycott over this incident. It should be interesting to see if this affects the Kansas City-based chain in a substantive way -- many claimed over the weekend to have seen a lot of empty Applebee's parking lots. Stay tuned.
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