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Taking take-out too far: Restaurant theft rises

By Noel C. Paul Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2001

Brian Hughes's penchant for filching began eight years ago with a small glass from TGI Friday's.

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He's since nabbed restaurant tchotchkes from around the globe. Purloined items include Malaysian salt and pepper shakers, a French ashtray, and drinking glasses from Singapore.

How does Mr. Hughes, a marketing manager from Westfield, N.J., justify his spontaneous stealing?

"If you think about it, they're buying these things in volume at a low price," he says. "But I end up tipping a little bit more to cover the cost."

Perhaps few Americans have stolen as broadly as Hughes, and yet many admit to having tucked away a coffee cup, a piece of silverware, or even a basket of dinner rolls from time to time.

Individual incidents represent a relatively small fraction of a restaurant's total overhead. (Abductions of sailing-yacht oil paintings and Chinese porcelain roosters are rare exceptions.)

But anecdotal evidence suggests the phenomenon of customers stealing from restaurants is growing.

According to a survey by the trade magazine Restaurant Business, eateries annually lose between 5 and 8 percent of gross sales to theft - by patrons and employees. The trend results in higher prices.

The number is likely to surge, experts argue, as restaurants seek to shape a stronger image in the marketplace by putting even more emphasis on decor.

Carting off Ronald

The variety of objects taken is equal to the diversity of places to eat. Last year, a 6-foot-tall, 100-lb. fiberglass Ronald McDonald statue in Normal, Ill. was taken for the third time in five years.

In August, a church group from Rock Hill, N.C., walked away with a 30-foot inflatable balloon from a Wendy's restaurant. The church's pastor later returned the balloon to the store's manager.

Higher-end restaurants that attract a well-heeled but sometimes rowdy clientele are often the most vulnerable.

Joe Sousa estimates that his urban restaurant, Boston's Cactus Club, loses about $100 in stolen goods each month.

The general manager of the popular eatery in the city's upscale Back Bay neighborhood, Mr. Sousa has personally witnessed a cavalcade of filching in his 10 years in the business.

The most memorable incident: a customer who stood up on his chair and methodically removed a cow skull from the wall.

More recently, a customer took a glass bowl into a rest room, where he tried to put it under wraps before exiting.

"I stood near the front door as he left, and asked him to give me the bowl back," says Sousa. "He unbuttoned his jacket and took it out of his pants. He laughed and acted like it was a big joke." Sousa says the bowl cost $20.

The culprits in the more involved incidents are often fraternity members, according to Sousa. Various restaurant operators say stealing accelerates in August as college students hunt for quirky items.

The life-size Ronald McDonald, for example, was passed around Normal, Ill., home to Illinois State University.

Hoarding sugar packets

The stealing of smaller items, like napkins and sugar packets, is naturally less conspicuous and less costly. But some customers, senior citizens in particular, tend to hoard a high volume of such table items.

Gary Fenske, the manager of Ambrosia, another Boston restaurant, suggests the trend may be a reflection of the Great Depression era's instinct to save.

He points to his own father as a model perpetrator. "He takes sugar packets because they're cheap [for a restaurant]," says Mr. Fenske. "It may be generational."

Other experts add that comestibles in tiny packets, laid out for consumption, invite users to pocket a few for later use. But they add that some consumers appear unable to police themselves on quantity.

Psychology of petty theft

Most restaurateurs are resigned to a small amount of filching. Still, many ponder the curious psychology that might motivate a customer to commit a blatant act of public theft.

In the instance of fraternities, it may be the fulfillment of a prank. In Hughes's case - and, to a lesser degree, with those who hoard small giveaway items - a sense of entitlement is involved, experts say.