New details released in New Jersey liquor swapping

Operation Swill

May 23, 2013 8:57:52 PM PDT
At one bar, a mixture that included rubbing alcohol and caramel coloring was sold as scotch. In another, premium liquor bottles were refilled with water - and apparently not even clean water at that.

State officials provided those new details Thursday on raids they conducted a day earlier as part of a yearlong investigation dubbed Operation Swill.

Twenty-nine New Jersey bars and restaurants, including 13 TGI Fridays, were accused of substituting cheap booze - or worse - for the good stuff while charging premium prices.

As part of Operation Swill, investigators collected 1,000 open bottles of vodka, gin, rum, scotch, whiskey and tequila from the wells of the bars, state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said.

"This alleged scheme is a dishonest ruse to increase profits and is a slap in the face of the consumer," Chiesa said.

Within seven days, the establishments must turn over records to help state authorities determine how many patrons were overcharged and by how much. They also will have to inform the state which employees were at work the days samples were covertly taken earlier this year.

State officials would not say what establishment used the rubbing alcohol or which one used dirty water, or water not from a tap. They said no health issues were reported.

TGI Fridays Inc. said it was conducting its own investigation, working with the franchisee that owns the 13 restaurants cited, The Briad Group.

The investigation started after the state began receiving more complaints than usual about possibly mislabeled drinks, said the director of the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, Michael Halfacre. An informant with knowledge of the industry contacted the agency in the fall to help in the investigation, he said.

In January and February, investigators went to 63 establishments they suspected were scamming liquor customers. They ordered drinks neat - that is, without ice or mixers - and then covertly took samples for testing.

Of 150 samples collected, 30 were not the brand as which they were being sold.

The establishments face suspensions of their liquor licenses and possible revocations if there are enough violations.

Giuseppe Calano, owner of The Italian Affair in Glassboro, was at his business Wednesday morning when agents with the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control seized the restaurant's alcohol and inventory records.

"Basically said they're here to do an inspection. They took the liquor with them. I guess, they want to do some analysis or whatever and that's fine by us," Calano said.

The Italian Affair is one of the 29 restaurants and bars accused of substituting non-premium alcoholic beverages for premium brands.

In other words, a customer orders a top shelf drink, but the bartender pours a less expensive liquor and the customer still pays the premium price.

"I am not surprised, but I think that' it's completely unfair and unjust and they should have more integrity," Mullica Hill, New Jersey resident Dawn Rusko said.

Kristen Ferrari of Pitman, New Jersey suspected she was getting cheated at happy hour at Villari's Lakeside in Sicklerville a couple weeks ago. Villari's is another of the restaurants under investigation by the Attorney General and visited by Alcohol Beverage Control agents today.

"I ordered their mojito and it was horrible," Ferrari said.

She said her taste buds told her her drink was made with low quality liquor, but she was still charged the cost of a premium drink.

"They charged me $10 for the drink and it's just wrong," Ferrari said.

The Attorney General's Office says the restaurants and bars were targeted because of citizen complaints, confidential informants and new technology used to test samples taken covertly by undercover detectives.

An attorney for Villari's says the owner denies the allegations.

Calano also denies doing anything and suspects a disgruntled former employee.

"Somebody who maybe who got fired. I am not sure. I really don't know," Calano said.

TGI Fridays, meanwhile, has released the following response:

"TGI Fridays was just made aware of this issue and is working closely with the franchisee and owner of the cited locations to review and investigate these serious allegations. We have one of the most extensive bar and beverage programs in the industry, which sets a very high standard in the quality and service of our beverages."

The bars and restaurants named in the investigation are:

Railroad Café, East Rutherford
The Brick House, Wycoff
Sunset Tavern, Burlington
Graziano's Ristorante, Chesilhurst
Villari's Lakeside, Gloucester Township
Yesterdays, Marmora
TGI Fridays, West Orange
Italian Affair, Glassboro
Bells Tavern, Lambertville
TGI Fridays, East Windsor
Brunswick Grove, East Brunswick
TGI Fridays, Old Bridge
TGI Fridays, North Brunswick
TGI Fridays, Piscataway
TGI Fridays, Freehold
TGI Fridays, Marlboro
TGI Fridays, Hazlet
Murray's, Dover
TGI Fridays, East Hanover
Sona Thirteen, Morristown
Blackthorn Restaurant, Parsippany
Ruby Tuesday, Bridgewater
TGI Fridays, Linden
Café 34, Matawan
Applebee's, Kearny
Cucina Calandara, Fairfield
TGI Fridays, Woodridge
TGI Fridays, Springfield
TGI Fridays, Clifton


The Associated Press contributed to this report.