Diner's acquittal sparks debate

Is the customer always right? Yes. No. Maybe. It depends on who you ask, and how empty the plate is.

Published October 5, 2006

Zachary Gross, owner of Z Grille in downtown St. Petersburg, believes jurors erred Wednesday when they acquitted a man of ditching his bill because the didn’t think there was enough seafood in his dish.

“That’s stealing. To walk out on your food tab is stealing,” Gross said.

He was so incensed by the outcome of the case that Gross plans to blow up a photo of the diner, Ralph Paul, from the newspaper and place it near his cash register. If Paul comes in, Gross says, he won’t serve him.

That’s the kind of impact Paul’s story had on people in local restaurants and legal circles Thursday. Paul’s case, a rarity in any courthouse, was featured in a front-page St. Petersburg Times article Thursday.

E-mails streamed into the newspaper, some from people supporting Paul, others supporting the restaurant that he refused to pay, Angellino’s Italian Restaurant in Palm Harbor.

“It’s unusual. I gotta tell you,” said veteran restaurant lawyer Leonard Englander of St. Petersburg. “I’ve never heard of this.”  

The question raised by the case: Is the customer always right?

“In my restaurant, the customer is always right,” said Frank Chivas, who owns popular local restaurants like the Salt Rock Grill and Island Way Grill. “The bottom line is that if a customer is unhappy with their meal, they don’t pay for it. How else can I put it?”

Having said that, Chivas hopes he won’t be stampeded by customers trying to wiggle out of their bills. He believes people are reasonable enough to pay when they should.

Losh Curri, bar manager at Ceviche Tapas Restaurant in South Tampa, said he tries to work with the customer within reason.

“If the customer wasn’t happy with it, the meal should be taken off the check,” he said.

Gross of the Z Grille had a slightly different view.

“I’m a full believer that a customer is not always right in every situation,” Gross said. “There are times when they make it very difficult to serve them. We’re their servers, but not their servants.”

“My policy is if they don’t eat it, they don’t pay for it. If they eat it, they pay,” said Patrick Purpura, owner of the Front Porch Grill  on N Florida Avenue in Tampa.

Purpura likened eating most of a meal and then sending it back to buying a car, driving it for a year and then returning it.

“If they don’t like it, don’t eat it and we’ll get you something else,” he said.

When he ate at Angellino’s, Paul said, he counted five shrimp and five scallops in the $15.99 Shrimp and Scallop Verdura, though his server said she counted six shrimp tails on the dish.

The meal, a popular choice at the restaurant, normally comes with five of each.

Paul said he ate the seafood, poked the pasta for more and, finding none, asked the server to take it back and off his bill. Paul said he offered to pay a portion of the $46 bill, but a manger and owner told him he had to pay the entire tab, which included a meal eaten by his girlfriend, along with coffee and dessert.

Paul thought the situation was getting heated and “briskly walked” to his silver BMW convertible and left without paying anything but a $3 tip, he said. A restaurant worker got the tag number and called deputies. Paul later was charged with defrauding the business.

After a daylong trial, a jury found him not guilty of a misdemeanor count of defrauding a restaurant, which carries a maximum punishment of 60 days in jail.

Chivas said the value of the dish would depend on the size of the shrimp and scallops. Paul said they were only bite-sized.

“I’ve eaten at this restaurant and I’ve eaten this dish,” Chivas said. “When I’ve eaten there I’ve felt I’ve gotten my money’s worth.”

Paul’s lawyer argued to jurors that Paul, a 54-year-old retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, didn’t intend to defraud the restaurant when he went inside, so therefore was innocent.

The jury foreman said that was the primary reason jurors acquitted Paul.

If that’s the case, the jury misunderstood the law, said Robert Batey, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law.

He said once Paul decided to leave the restaurant without paying, his intent was to defraud.

“It can happen the moment they decide to walk out of the restaurant,” Batey said. “His attempt to pay the bill (also) is not a complete defense.”

Paul argued that, as a veteran, he felt he had to live up to a code of honor in defending himself against the bill. He said the took the case to trial on principle.

But Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant in Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe’s office, said prosecutors also had to act on principle by standing up for the business.

“We were faced with the option of saying, 'Too bad, Mr. Restaurant Owner, even though the guy walked out without paying, we’re not going to back you.’ Or do you stand up for the guy who is legitimately trying to make a living?” Bartlett said.

“I would rather have had them resolve it another way, but it didn’t happen,” Bartlett added. “This guy dug his feet in and was not going to pay for it. But the concept that someone can go into a restaurant and eat a portion of their meal and then decide they don’t want to pay for it bothers me. And I’m sure it bothers all the restaurateurs in the area.”

The owners of Angellino’s declined to comment Thursday, a manager said.

A good way to prevent something like this: Customers should ask their servers about the meals they are considering, said Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Paul said he wasn’t expecting a pasta dish when he ordered the meal and thought the menu was deceiving, even though it said the dish came with pasta.

“We’re very proud of the products we are serving and we’re very happy to tell you what’s in them,” Mosteller said. “We’re really good at a lot of things. But mind-reading is not one of them.”

Times staff writers Tamara El-Khoury and Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at tisch@sptimes.com.