Burger King reneges on promise to customer to provide lifetime of free meals

Is the fast food chain obligated to honor the commitment?

Kindra Cooper

Burger King lawsuit

A customer who was locked in a Burger King bathroom for over an hour is suing the fast food chain for reneging on its promise to compensate him with a lifetime of free Whopper Meals.

It’s a classic example of a business biting off more than it can chew with a grand gesture simply out of a desire to appear customer-centric. Nonetheless, a promise is a promise.  

On December 15, FedEx warehouse worker Curtis Brooner encountered a jammed door lock when he tried to leave the men’s restroom at a Burger King franchise in Portland. After employees pushed unsuccessfully on the door, they slid a fly swatter underneath and told Brooner to use it to pry the lock open. When that didn’t work and Brooner cut his hand in the process, the restaurant finally called a locksmith to dislodge the faulty lock.

Burger King offered to compensate Brooner with a lifetime of Burger King meals at no cost.

"While I was sitting in their lobby trying to calm down," Brooner told Willamette Weekly, "the manager came over and said, 'Anytime you come in here, it's free meals on us.' I eat at Burger King almost daily, and so I was grateful for the offer."

Brooner cashed in on the free-meal promise for the next 13 consecutive days; twice, he ate breakfast and dinner there on the same day. But when he returned for his next free meal on December 28, he was told that “district management” had rescinded the offer.

Brooner sued the fast food chain for $9,026.16 in damages based on his lawyer’s calculations that Brooner, age 50, will hypothetically live to age 72 and consume one Whopper Meal per week on average, with each meal costing $7.89.

“It’s an honor issue,” Brooner said. “They could have said, ‘The next meal is free,’ and that would have ended it. But that’s not the deal they made.”

Despite popular belief, oral contracts are legally enforceable - as long as the terms for each party are sufficiently clear to establish a contractual relationship. But contracts lasting over a year (in this case, a lifetime) and valued over $500 may necessitate a written agreement per the state of Oregon’s Statute of Frauds. The viability of the lawsuit aside, Burger King pulling the plug on its deal prompts an important discussion about making and keeping promises to customers.

According to the lawsuit, while Brooner remained trapped in the bathroom, he could hear “Burger King employees and customers laughing,” the lawsuit claims. He has also accused Burger King for being negligent about maintaining the door lock, which “showed signs of damage caused by other people who had previously been locked inside the bathroom.”

The manager’s offer of free meals may have been a heat-of-the-moment whim, but once a customer is conditioned to expect certain compensation, they will be exponentially more upset if they don’t receive it, even if said compensation is outsized or unreasonable. And to Brooner’s point, if businesses are conditioned to think they can make unattainable promises without consequences, customers are at further risk of being over-promised and under-delivered.

Here are some things to consider when compensating an unhappy customer:

1. Hear the customer out

Before jumping in with a proposed resolution, let the customer vent. An upset customer just wants to feel heard - and active listening is key. Empathizers like, “I understand why you were frustrated by the late shipment,” or “I would be irritated, too, if I were treated that way,” soothe the customer by making them feel acknowledged and understood.

2. Recreate how things should have been - and throw in something extra

Lost time can’t be bought back, nor the chance to get it right the first time. The absolute bare minimum you can do is give the customer what they initially paid for. But if you’re hoping to retain an irate customer, that’s not enough. Offer something extra, like a voucher, gift card, store credit, a free upgrade or free delivery as a gesture of goodwill. Don’t neglect the lifetime value of a loyal, engaged customer.

Not to defend Burger King’s actions, but after the fast food restaurant offered Brooner a lifetime of free meals, his CLV dropped to zero, leaving little incentive for the business to honor the agreement.

A balanced compensation policy should boost customer lifetime value by providing the customer with something of value while potentially increasing their loyalty to the brand. For example, offering a free trial version to a customer who is displeased with a certain feature of your software might convince them to upgrade to the paid version.

3. Recognize that a customer service failure can be an opportunity

The service recovery paradox holds that sincere, value-added compensation can leave the customer more satisfied than if the blooper had not occurred in the first place. A late delivery or inventory mix-up can be an opportunity for you to compensate the customer with something even better - if not in material value then the feeling of being cared for when the gesture is sincere. The Walt Disney company’s H.E.A.R.D. method is a five-step process for service recovery.

Hear - Let the customer vent their frustration without interruption

Empathize - Understand the customer’s thoughts and emotions

Apologize - Never the “naked” apology. Always explain why you are sorry

Resolve - Offer a solution that is better than what the customer initially paid for

Diagnose - Once the customer is satisfied, investigate why the mistake occurred

Famed for its legendary customer service, Zappos owes 75 percent of its purchases to repeat customers, and it’s easy to see why based on how the company deals with goof-ups using humor, personalization, resolution and attention to detail: