Shirelle Copeland was all set to pay her family's dinner bill at Oak & Embers in Pinecrest on Sunday evening, Jan. 3, but first had a request to the server: Could they please take an order of chicken wings off the tab?
Copeland's young son had ordered them and didn't like them. They'd sent an order back almost entirely uneaten, got a new batch from the kitchen with sauce on the side, tried one wing, and left the plate again. Everything else on their tab, which was about $60, was fine.
As expected, the server asked the manager and, because the owner was on site, the manager asked the owner.
As Copeland didn't expect, the answer wasn't to give a discount or offer a free dessert or one of the many responses usually delivered in circumstances like this. The answer was that Oak & Embers was calling the Orange police department.
Copeland, who is Black, taped the incident once the police officer arrived and broadcast it via Facebook live. The scene the video captures is awkward and bizarre. The officer, who admits he responded to the call because no one else in the department wanted to, observes a plate of chicken wings with only one eaten and confirms the Copeland family simply didn't like them. The owner, Marc Garofoli, takes the item off the bill. Outside, the officer tells Copeland the cops aren't a "collection agency" for restaurants.
Days later, Garofoli stood by his decision. Though, he told Scene, he understands he might come out of a story about the incident looking like a villain, there were very real financial reasons, in his mind, to have the police department come to his restaurant over a bill dispute.
"We've had lots of issues in the past at the restaurant with customers eating three-fourths of the meal or a percentage of their meals — we give out big portions, typically — and that particular location, we've had lots of comped food," he told Scene. "$1,500 to $2,000 a week. We've been trying to combat the issue, and it's only been during Covid, and it's only that location, so we've been trying to figure out a way to stop this."
As for the difference between someone trying to get out of paying for a meal they mostly ate and someone who simply didn't like their food and didn't eat it, Garofoli said there's very little to him.
"We are struggling to make ends meet," he said. "It's not a matter of cost. It's labor. It's rent. I'm just trying to illustrate that a ranch dressing helps pay the rent, especially now. We're a scratch-made restaurant. It's not a matter of if it's a filet or ranch dressing, everything counts. We haven't taken a paycheck out of Pinecrest ever. We're trying to provide the best food possible and pay 200 employees."
The restaurant shared a similar message on its Facebook page
last week, though it didn't mention the incident with police.
For Garofoli, summoning the cops was an effort to resolve the situation.
"We didn't want a confrontation," he said.
Asked if someone who's Black might see having the cops called, in front of their children, on their dinner tab as the exact opposite of de-escalation, Garofoli said he didn't even know who was at the table that night and in general, "We don't look at the police as a threat. We look at the police as an aid."
It was the Orange police department, he said, which suggested he call them if he needed "aid with customers," which he told Scene he's done a half dozen times since March of last year as the comped food losses spiraled.
The Orange PD confirmed that they've been called fewer than 10 times to the restaurant, and not always over a disputed bill, but said Oak & Embers misconstrued the limits on their offer to help.
"We've told everyone if they're having a dispute and we can be helpful to call us," Lt. Mike Roberts told Scene. This, he said, would include customers who are unruly in some manner. But, "This one in particular was a civil one with a customer who was ready, willing and able to pay for her meal minus the one entree they didn't eat. That's a civil matter, and we have no authority to be helpful besides guiding management into making the right decision. If someone had a scam where they're intentionally defrauding a vendor of food and eating three-quarters of a meal, we'd say you need to pay, and theft is less of a gray area if you have a party come in, consume a few entrees and then everyone disappears. They're going to be arrested and we're happy to do that. But this matter was not one for the police."