TRENTON – Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa and Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Director Michael Halfacre today announced the details of “Operation Swill,” a raid executed Wednesday by more than 100 ABC and Division of Criminal Justice investigators that targeted 29 establishments that were allegedly substituting premium alcoholic beverage brands with “well brand spirits,” i.e., non-premium brands.
Specifically, the ABC investigation indicates that these 29 establishments were allegedly engaging in a practice of filling premium brand bottles with non-premium brands in an effort to deceive the customer and increase their profits. The customer paid for the premium brand, but was instead, unbeknownst to the customer, poured the non-premium brand.
TGI Fridays locations in Linden, Old Bridge, Piscataway and Springfield were among the establishments targeted by the investigation as well as Brunswick Grove in East Brunswick.
“This alleged scheme is a dishonest ruse to increase profits, and it is a slap in the face to the consumer,” said Chiesa. “Consumers should have the peace of mind of knowing that they will get what they spent their hard-earned money on every single time – no exceptions.”
“I believe Operation Swill will go a long way towards restoring that peace of mind and will also serve as a warning to anyone currently engaging in, or thinking about engaging in, this fraudulent practice,” added Chiesa.
Investigators yesterday visited the establishments, inspected the bar areas and seized all opened bottles of the following brands:
- Vodka: Finlandia, Smirnoff, Absolut, Grey Goose, Ketel One
- Gin: Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Gordon’s
- Rum: Bacardi Light, Bacardi Dark, Captain Morgan Spiced
- Scotch: Johnny Walker Black, Dewar’s
- Whiskey: Jack Daniel’s Black Label, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark
- Tequila: Jose Cuervo Silver, Jose Cuervo Gold, Patron Silver
The ABC seized approximately 1,000 bottles yesterday, and that inventory is being securely stored with the ABC Investigations Bureau. The alcohol will go through more rounds of testing by the ABC and the manufacturers.
The operation focused on the 29 establishments because of information from confidential informants, consumer complaints and testing of samples conducted by both the ABC and the manufacturers of the brands. The samples were taken in January and February when ABC investigators visited 63 licensed establishments across the state and covertly took 150 samples. The undercover ABC detectives visited these establishments and secured samples of premium brand spirits by paying for drinks ordered “neat” – that is with no ice or mixer. Some of the locations visited had previous complaints against them, and some were chosen at random.
Halfacre said the division receives numerous consumer complaints about this practice every year.
“These cases can be difficult to prosecute because of the fleeting nature of the offense, and evidence of the offense is nearly impossible to collect after the fact,” Halfacre said. “The ABC made the determination that the best way to address and eradicate this problem was with a coordinated effort like ‘Operation Swill’.”
Following the sample collection in January and February, the ABC tested the 150 samples using a new testing technology, a device called the True Spirit Authenticator. This machine provides a preliminary analysis of samples in a short span of time. In addition, the samples were sent to the laboratories of the brand manufacturers where additional testing of the samples was conducted. It was found that of the 150 samples 30 were not the brand they purported to be.
The International Federation of Spirits Producers, which represents those manufacturers, cooperated in this process and indicated to the ABC that drink substitution was a challenge for their business.
“The establishments raided yesterday by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control were targeted because we are taking this type of fraudulent business practice seriously,” Halfacre said. “This practice affects the entire alcoholic beverage regulatory system. Manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers are all victims of this scam.”
At the time of the seizure, investigators took statements from employees and also served demands for sales records. The establishments will have seven days to provide sales and invoice records that include information about the 20 brands of interest. They will also have to provide to the ABC information about the employees that were working the day samples were taken and the retail prices from the last nine months of the targeted brands.
The following establishments were targeted in Operation Swill:
- 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, Hamilton
- TGI Fridays, Springfield
- TGI Fridays, Clifton
Penalties for serving a drink other than ordered range from a 5-day suspension for the first offense to a 15-day suspension for the third offense. If further testing proves any of the seized bottles did not contain the correct labeled alcohol, that bottle could have multiple violations based on the potential drinks that could have been poured. ABC regulations could also allow for a 30-day suspension for any illegal activity on the licensed premise and those locations could also face a 30-day suspension for not cooperating in the investigation.
The Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control has a toll-free hotline for citizens to report illegal activity to ABC’s Investigative Unit. Anyone with information on illegal activity is encouraged to call 1-866-713-8392. All information received via the ABC hotline will remain confidential.
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