NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Waffle House, the 24-hour breakfast chain, and the police in a small Florida Panhandle town found themselves on the defensive this week, after a video showed a black couple being handcuffed following a dispute over the cost of a meal and a glass of orange juice.
After a mobile phone video of the May 2 episode was shared widely on social media, police in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, released its own body camera footage on Tuesday (June 12) with a forceful statement saying they wanted to "set the record straight" about the encounter, they had "followed proper protocol" and there had been "no misconduct" by the officers.
Waffle House, facing renewed calls for a boycott, said the couple had received a full refund for the meal the day after the handcuffing and that Mr Walter Ehmer, the Waffle House chief executive, had called on Thursday to apologise to the woman.
The chain plans to offer "additional training" in customer service to employees at the restaurant, Mr Pat Warner, a spokesman, said in a statement on Thursday.
"While our review of the Fort Walton Beach, Florida, incident is continuing, we think both sides could have handled this situation better," he said. "On our part, our employee could have done more to de-escalate the dispute before calling the police."
The May 2 encounter was only the latest high-profile controversy for Waffle House, whose yellow-and-black signs are ubiquitous in the South. There have been other viral videos showing the police being called on African-American customers of the chain after disputes with restaurant staff. It comes amid greater scrutiny of the differing treatment of black and white customers by businesses.
Fort Walton Beach is a city of more than 20,000 people.
The dispute occurred around 1.30am local time and appeared to have to do with how much the couple should pay for a glass of orange juice: US$2.50 (S$3.37), as a restaurant employee stated, or US$1, as the couple interpreted the menu to indicate, according to the footage.
The disagreement escalated. The couple states in the video that they did not understand why their bill was US$27 instead of US$18. They said they had tried to pay but had not received their food.
Waffle House employees called the police after, as one white employee said in the video, the couple "kept yelling and arguing and saying no" and "being belligerent". After they were led outside, the couple engaged with the police in a disagreement over the bill.
"If you don't pay your bill, you're going to jail," one officer stated, adding that the man could be charged with theft.
"I'm willing to pay my bill, I'm trying," the man said. "I'm sitting here adding my bill up, 'How is my bill this high?'"
A police officer pointed a Taser at the man, who was then handcuffed and placed in a police car. The woman was handcuffed shortly afterwards.
The man and woman were eventually released, and the bill was paid. An officer suggested the man never return to the Waffle House.
The civil rights activist and columnist Shaun King, who has publicised many similar videos, called for a boycott of the chain.
Mr David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, also called for a boycott. The coalition is helping organise a protest at the Waffle House headquarters on June 15 to ask the restaurant chain to arrange cultural competency training sessions at each of its 1,800 locations across the country, as well as to support customers who say they have been mistreated at the chain.
"This is blatant and continuous, and the company has to do something as a result from it," Mr Johns said, noting earlier incidents involving the chain this year.
In April, employees at a Waffle House in Alabama called the police to report two women who they said were acting "drunk and disorderly". Officers threw Ms Chikesia Clemons, a black woman, onto the floor, threatened to break her arm, placed a hand on her throat and exposed her breasts.
By chance, that was the same morning that a man armed with a rifle opened fire in a Waffle House outside Nashville, Tennessee, killing four young minorities and injuring four others.
And a video released in May showed a police officer choking a black man and then throwing him to the ground outside a Waffle House in North Carolina.
Also this spring, Starbucks faced criticism after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia store after asking to use a washroom without buying anything then refusing to leave. After the Starbucks arrest in April, the Philadelphia police chief apologised, as did the Starbucks chief executive, and the company shut down 8,000 stores in the United States for racial-bias training.
That case touched off greater news media attention to other situations in which white people called the authorities over seemingly minor disputes across the country.
The Fort Walton Beach mayor, Mr Dick Rynearson, said all police protocols had been followed and he supported the local police "100 per cent".
"Knowing what I know about the situation, I don't know that I would have been as calm as our police were," Mr Rynearson said. "It surprises me that we have an incident in our town. To the best of my knowledge, we just have not had racial issues. This is a strong community."
Mr Rynearson referred more detailed questions to the police department, which did not return requests seeking comment.