A fatal drunken-driving crash and million-dollar settlement that rocked Charleston's fine-dining establishments have led to major changes at one of the nation's most highly-regarded restaurants.
The fiery crash and lawsuit also have put restaurants across the USA on notice that a tradition at many restaurants - in which employees share a drink after work in a spirit of camaraderie - can have devastating consequences.
The 4 a.m. crash in South Carolina occurred last December, when Adam Burnell, 32, an assistant manager and sommelier at Charleston's Husk restaurant, allegedly drove his Audi into the back of a Mustang driven by Quentin Miller, 32. The crash slammed Miller's car into a concrete wall; it erupted in flames, trapping him inside. He died at the scene. Burnell, who prosecutors said had a blood-alcohol level of 0.24%, three times the legal limit, was charged with felony driving under the influence.
Miller's family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, alleging that Husk allowed Burnell to drink to excess on its premises after hours and then drive drunk. It was a stumble for a restaurant that was named "Best New Restaurant in America" by Bon Appetit magazine months earlier. Husk also was ranked one of the "101 Best Places to Eat in the World" by Newsweek magazine last month.
Burnell, who sustained minor injuries and is awaiting trial, was not named as a defendant.
Husk's owner, Marietta, Ga.-based Neighborhood Dining Group Inc., and its insurer agreed last month to settle the suit for $1.1 million. The company denied fault or liability.
Neighborhood Dining Group already had a policy that prohibits employees of its four restaurants - three in Charleston and one in Atlanta - from drinking on the premises, says president David Howard.
"I've had a policy in place since 1991," he says. "No consumption of alcohol is to be allowed. I don't believe that staff should consume alcohol in the workplace, period. The policy states that at (our) restaurants you cannot drink in the workplace. Other statements have been made to the contrary, but that is a clear policy."
Many of Husk's employees routinely violated that policy, says Charleston attorney Carl Pierce, who represented the estate of Quentin Miller. "In depositions, the majority of non-management employees ... drank during or after their shifts," he says.
"This is not just Husk," Pierce says. "It is rampant in the restaurant industry, from what I understand. It is a culture of post-shift drinking, and in some restaurants, drinking during the shift. It's almost like a fringe benefit in some high-end restaurants, this tradition of drinking after work."
Restaurant employees are just like anyone else - after work, some want to unwind with a drink or two. That's why it's important for restaurants that serve alcohol to have a strict, no-drinking-on-the-premises policy, says Karalee Nielsen, a partner in Revolutionary Eating Ventures LLC, which owns seven restaurants in Charleston, including Poe's Tavern, Monza and Closed for Business.
" The places that don't have no-tolerance policies, sometimes there's a free-for-all," she says. "When we began to grow about 10 years ago, we implemented a strict, no-tolerance policy. People told me we were crazy to do it. There were a lot of people in town who said it wasn't possible.
"But it's never made sense to me. Why would you let somebody do that at your business? You wouldn't be OK with somebody doing it at a bank. Or in retail. Why would we think our industry would be an exception?"
Annika Stensson, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, says the group has not "done research on restaurant employee culture" and declined to comment on how widespread the practice is.
"I've definitely heard that that's a pretty common thing," says J.T. Griffin, MADD's vice president of public policy. "I don't know if I'd go so far as to say it's a national tradition, but I'd say it's pretty common."
He says "the bigger restaurant chains" have instituted policies to prevent employees from drinking on the premises but many independent restaurants might still allow it.
Pierce, the attorney, says that many restaurants actually have no-drinking policies for their employees. "It's the enforcement of the policies that's the problem," he says. "At Husk, Mr. Howard was the enforcer. If he had been on the premises every night, this would not have happened. It's just that he was not there every night."
Howard says his company, including Husk, has focused on "opportunities to improve enforcement" of the no-drinking-by-employees policy. "We have installed surveillance cameras in our restaurants to help us enforce the policy," he says. "We have also instituted an even harder-line policy to help us (catch) any violators. ... No manager, no chef, no general manager or any staff is allowed in any of our bars at any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unless they're performing their duty."
Pierce says Miller's family hopes other restaurateurs will make sure that no-drinking policies are enforced. Miller was a bartender in Charleston, he says.
By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY