Taking take-out too far: Restaurant theft rises

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

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?

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"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.

Restaurant decorations are popular targets because they aren't for sale, according to nationally known restaurant consultant Bill Marvin.

There is little difference in the minds of many customers between a book of matches and a cup of cream, he says. "If you take something with a price tag, it's obviously stealing. If you take something not for sale, then it's just 'souvenir hunting,' " he says.

Still, Mr. Marvin admonishes his restaurant clients to think strategically about theft.

"What you have to do as an operator is just assume everything is going to be picked up. Screw things to the walls, bolt plants to the underside of the table, just make people work hard for it."

Consumers pay another price in diminished aesthetics, experts point out. It's now rare to find a piece of pottery or picture not glued down to a shelf. And at many restaurants, real menus have all but vanished from the front of the establishment.

To confront, or let slide?

When acts of theft do occur, Marvin says, those on duty should not hesitate to openly confront a customer stealing an item of value. He says some managers subtly offer to add the item to the customer's bill, without directly accusing them of pilfering.

Still, many managers are reluctant to embarrass or anger what might be a loyal patron.

"You can't accuse a customer of stealing," says Linda Lipsky, a restaurant consultant in Broomall, Pa. "The cost of losing the customer is much greater than the cost of that $4 salt-and-pepper set."

Some restaurants sell items like salt and pepper shakers at the front of the store.

Ed Mass, who owns the Orleans Inn in Orleans, Mass., tries to be charitable when customers walk away with one of the many antiques in the Inn.

"If it meant that much to them that they felt they had to take it, maybe it will have an impact on their life," says Mr. Mass.

When employees are the culprits

Profits lost to customer theft are small potatoes compared with what is lost to the stealing and fraud perpetrated by employees at establishments ranging from truck-stop diners to four-star French bistros.

The restaurant industry loses $15 billion to $25 billion annually to such activity, according to NCS, a Minneapolis-based research firm.

Consider the case of the Orleans Inn. Employees at the Orleans, Mass., restaurant annually account for as much as $100,000 in losses - including the cost of misrepresenting the hours they work, food and drinks consumed on the job, and theft of money and objects - compared with only about $1,000 in losses from customer theft, says owner Ed Maas.

Objects taken range from trinkets (the inn goes through 10,000 customized pens each year) to cash and flatware, Mr. Maas says. "Some staff feel entitled to cash and food and beverages," he says. "When they go off to college, they'll often take things to supply their apartments."

Other incidents are more calculated. A bartender stole $10,000 in cash and goods, for example, when the inn first opened four years ago, Mass says.

Pilfering on that scale is rare. But in a survey of 1,400 employees from 11 different restaurants, NCS found that employees annually take an average of $218 in cash and goods.

Restaurant consultant Linda Lipsky credits the commonality of theft to the quick turnover of waiters and "bus boys," many of whom are hired without any background check.

But rather than sharpen their focus on a job candidate's resume, many managers are now turning to security cameras as a deterrent.

After installing cameras four years ago, Maas says large-scale theft substantially decreased.

Some industry-watchers say the real solution lies in improving the company's goals and working environment. The NCS survey, for one, found that employees steal $30 less on average while working in a "positive culture."

The benefits are evident at the New Yorker Diner in Watertown, Mass., where, according to owner Peter Georgopoulos, the staff has been extremely loyal for nearly 40 years.

"A lot of waitresses work here for 10 years, 11 years," says Mr. Georgopoulos. "The fact that we're family-owned has a lot to do with it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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