When I started writing this story I asked almost everyone I met if they’d ever taken anything from a restaurant. You know, a napkin, a glass, or packets of soy sauce. Almost unanimously the answers began with, “yea, I took…”.
Restaurant thievery as it turns out, comes with a lifetime of boasting and bragging rights which were not that difficult to pry out of the thieves I spoke to. Take David Dunbar for example. His life of crime began a few decades ago when he began taking spoons from restaurants. All over the world, wherever he dined, he pocketed a small spoon. Today, David has a large jar in his kitchen full of memories and stories all in the form of a different spoon. He looks at his collection of crime and talks with great satisfaction about a country, the food he ate, the people around the table and the experience.
David, a chef himself covets one spoon in particular. It’s an ornately tattooed, black handled spoon. “When I’m working I like to use this spoon, but I have to watch it closely. I know someone will pinch it.” Ok readers I know what you’re thinking, a spoon thief worried his stolen spoon will get pinched – that’s rich.
David’s name has been changed to protect his identity, as with others mentioned in this story but restaurant thievery it seems, is quite common. David denies any guilt for his actions, instead he ranks spoon theft low on the scale of bad etiquette and culinary crimes. “There are bigger fish to fry,” claims Dunbar who once hired undercover watchers to mascaraed as customers in his restaurant. “At $600 to $1,000 a weekend, it was really expensive.”
What he caught was an employee bringing cheap bottles of vodka into his restaurant and pocketing the money he made from $12 cocktails. Less brazen was when Dunbar was forced to switch from “cutting my own steaks to pre-cut so inventory could be more exact”, and he started buying $30 knock-off Peugeot pepper mills because “the real-McCoy” kept disappearing, “At $150 a peppermill it got pretty expensive.”
But Dunbar says, “Employees who steel, bad tippers and people that walk out on a bill are the most deplorable people.” His justification for his thievery is simple: “I always over tip, so I think it all kind of works out.”
Spoons, menus, cutting boards, salt and peppershakers – it doesn’t matter. Diners will take just about anything from bars and restaurants that isn’t nailed down. The problem is so rampant that The Waldorf Astoria in New York City launched an amnesty program – no questions asked. In the past year they’ve received hundreds of pilfered items each one with a different story of a special moment in time. So taken aback with the returns that the Waldorf is planning to erect glass cases in their lobby dedicated to those who loved their time at the Waldorf so much, they all wanted a piece of it.
Restaurant thieves I spoke to say they assume the items they took didn’t cost a lot, or that the businesses have plenty of replacements. Some justify their actions by saying they’ve spent plenty of money at the place over the years. And for things like glassware, many think bars get all that stuff free from distributors anyway, though that is rarely the case.
I ran into Dorothy Davis who wouldn’t commit to stealing from a restaurant but has experienced it first hand. Dorothy and a group of colleagues spent an evening at a company banquet celebrating an annual event. One of the girls, Betty Birthwaite had too much to drink so at the end of the evening Dorothy decided to help Betty home. When she opened her purse to retrieve the coat check ticket, to her horror Dorothy discovered an entire table setting complete with silverware and glasses taken from the banquet hall. Dorothy looked the other way that evening, but the following year when the same event took place, Dorothy made sure Betty’s place setting was made up of a paper plate, plastic glass and faux cutlery.
All joking aside, for as long as restaurants have been open for business, customers have walked off with things. Take napkins for example – many do. Celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver claims that 30,000 of his monogrammed, cloth napkins go missing every month. Another celebrity chef Terence Conran supposedly lost 1,000 ashtrays in the same time period at his restaurant.
Jennifer Johnston and a group of colleagues travelled to Boston for a conference. The group was dining at an Italian restaurant one evening when, “it involved a lot of drinks and daring”, says Jennifer. They were leaving when they noticed the entire lobby was decorated with Italian foods, giant tins of peppers, tomato sauce and olive oil among hanging prosciutto, garlic and cheese. One of Jennifer’s colleagues picked up a tin and to their surprise it wasn’t a display tin at all but a full tin of roasted peppers. “I had the biggest purse so that’s where it went. I brought it home, right through customs,” says an astonished Jennifer. Once back in Canada, Jennifer made an asparagus and roasted pepper salad and brought it into work so all responsible could share in the profits of their crime spree.
Most of these restaurant crimes are technically shoplifting and punishable by law. “I would never be able to legitimately shoplift. I think my conscience just wouldn’t let me do it. I would feel terrible,” says 23-year-old Sally Snow, who stole a few mini deep fryer baskets from the A & W restaurant on Montrose Road in Niagara Falls. “They served their fries in them. “I thought they’d really come in handy for paperclips and hair clips.” She proudly shows me two of her pilfered little baskets. So how has this affected the restaurant? You can now purchase the little fryer baskets if you want one and just in case you’re thinking your pockets are big enough, think again. A & W has now installed 17 new security cameras throughout the restaurant.
Fuelled by some combination of thrill, sentimentalism and alcohol, people who wouldn’t dream of taking a pack of gum from the corner store have no qualms about sticking an espresso cup in their pants. In fact, I met another chef who collected little espresso cups while eating his way through Rome last year. He’s proud of his collection. For some reason, many otherwise-law-abiding citizens don’t consider stealing from bars and restaurants to be stealing at all. And unlike in retail stores, where there are price tags on items, diners don’t always think about how the costs of their impulse grabs add up for restaurants.
So who pays? “Restaurant theft definitely has an impact on (menu) prices,” explains Jamie Rilett, Vice President of the Ontario division of Restaurants Canada. Jamie, who’s name has not been changed says branded or unique restaurant items are commonly stolen. Depending on the restaurant and level of theft, in an industry where profit margins are so thin and anti theft measures and security procedures are high, “it means everyone is paying for it in their restaurant bill.”
People who pinch from restaurants must know that a higher cost of doing business is great incentive for restauranteurs to take matters into their own hands. Like the A & W that installed 17 additional security cameras, all restaurants have their own security policies that range from looking the other way to calling the police. But at the end of the day Jamie says, “restaurants are in the business of making people feel welcome and chaining silverware to the table is not a welcoming feel.”
So restaurant thieves, you’re not only paying for the item you stole through higher prices, but for everyone else’s impulse of crime as well. “In the end, it would be cheaper for customers to just buy what they want,” laments David Dunlop. “But where’s the thrill in that!”
This story first appeared in the summer issue of Today Niagara magazine.
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.