Theft in Restaurants is More Common Than You Think

At a former restaurant job, we used an antique ashtray and a vintage sterling silver jewelry case to present the check. The shape of each resembled the logo of the restaurant and guests were always charmed by them when they asked for the bill. The restaurant was quite tiny, appointed with a lot of carefully curated barware. The cutlery was adorned with mother of pearl handles. We were surrounded by a lot of precious things, which meant that many of those precious things would often mysteriously disappear. Management would blame the staff when silverware went missing but, most of the time, we all knew the stolen items were ending up in guests’ pockets and handbags. To many restaurants, theft is considered part of the cost of doing business. 

There were less than twenty seats in this restaurant, and I guarded the vintage items fastidiously. I knew I had to retrieve the check immediately or risk having them stolen. Kleptomaniacs are a clever sort, so we had to be vigilant. The garnish picks were the hardest to police. We ordered them in small batches from Etsy, by an artisan who made each one uniquely by hand. Each pick cost at three to five dollars wholesale. We would lose about ten to fifteen of them every few weeks. I saw a woman at my table use it as a hairpin before I went over to the table to ask her to return it. “Oh… but these are so cute. Can’t I just take one??” she said with an air of entitlement.

The night the antique ashtray disappeared, I noticed the woman at my table coveting it as she signed her bill. She kept telling her boyfriend how it reminded her of something in her grandmother’s summer house. I turned around for a split second to confirm a drink order with the bartender, and when I turned back she was gone and so was the ashtray. A month later the jewelry box was stolen too.

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These weren’t extremely valuable items but, because they were vintage, they were difficult to replace. Restaurant guests who steal are usually small time crooks. Waiters guard their pens like family heirlooms because they’re accustomed guests pilfering them. Recently, a guest signed his check and took my sturdy Parker Jotter pen that the restaurant provides in limited quantities and left me his cheap plastic pen with a corporate logo. I try my best to surveil my tables but, even if someone swipes your pen, it’s difficult to confront them about it without seeming like you’re being petty. “I just paid hundreds of dollars for dinner and you chased me down for a measly pen?” they might wonder. It’s a flawed mentality though because in many ways they’re stealing part of the server’s uniform.

Why do so many guests feel so entitled to steal things from restaurants? None of these people wouldn’t dare be so cavalier about pocketing goods from a retail store of any kind. Purchasing twenty dollars worth of toiletries wouldn’t embolden someone to swipe a keychain at the the checkout counter on his way out of the drugstore. Few people would ever walk into their lawyer’s office and nab his stapler just because they were billed three thousand dollars last month. Yet many diners inexplicably feel entitled to repossess whatever amenities they please. I’ve had people jokingly ask, “I really like this glass, what would you do if I took it?” They ask this question flippantly because they know that a server would never have the gall to say “I’d probably call the police.” When guests frame the question like this, it shifts the guilt onto the servers as though their criminal impulses are normal and servers policing them would not be.

There’s something so much deeper going on when guests steal things from restaurants. On a subconscious level, it belies a greater issue within many restaurant guests that part of the hospitality experience is to excuse the occasional indiscretion. In other words, part of caring for their needs is an expectation that we will turn a blind eye to inappropriate behavior including stealing. 

In an effort to manage inventory and deter theft, many restaurants force their staff count valuable items like leather-bound menus or flatware on a nightly basis. But those same restaurants balk at charging guests for the items they stole when they catch them red-handed. Too often, when theft occurs, the staff is blamed for its lack of vigilance. But waitstaff are too busy to be crimebusters. As with most guest transgressions in hospitality, avoiding confrontation is paramount and standing up for what is right can be fraught. The risk of offending a guest (even the kleptos) isn’t worth the cost of replacing the stolen property. It’s unfortunate because a restaurant staff member confronting a guest who has just stolen something shouldn’t be considered inhospitable, it should be inarguably justified. 

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When Saying “No” is Not An Option

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An ornery guest who dined at one of my tables recently sent a surly email to the restaurant when she noticed after the fact that a market price item on her bill was more expensive than she expected. She claimed in her email that the server (me) had neglected to inform tell her price of the dish and, therefore, felt entitled to some form of reparation.

When the management team approached me with her grievance, I assured them with absolute certainty that I did quote the price. The trouble was that the woman complaining wasn’t the person who ordered the market price item. Her husband did, and she may not have overheard our conversation about the price. Our staff is always careful with market price items to avoid sticker shock. I distinctly remember reviewing the market prices for all the dishes on the menu when he inquired about the dish he eventually ordered. 

It’s not unusual in the service industry for customers to contact the restaurant with improbable stories about the staff’s incompetence. Sadly, those calls vastly outnumber the ones that lavish praise. When guests have a dispute, management handles them with kid gloves. Defending the staff only fans the flames, so we use whatever tools we have at our disposal to put out the fire, even when we suspect them of arson. 

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For management, defending employees against guest complaints is a Catch 22. Even when we know we’re right, It feels inhospitable to prioritize our version of the events over theirs. In cases like these, it comes down to he said/she said and it’s a usually a no-win situation for the restaurant. When diffusing guest complaints, we always take the path of least resistance. There’s an old adage that a happy guest will tell five of their friends but an unhappy one will tell one hundred.

After she continued insisting that I had neglected to quote the price, the restaurant folded its hand. In her subsequent emails, she claimed to have spoken with her husband and he didn’t recall my telling him the price. It may be true that he didn’t remember but that doesn’t mean I never told him. In the end, much to my chagrin, management refunded her the full price of the dish. But I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised. 

The restaurant business is all about giving pleasure and sometimes we have to swallow our pride to give our guests the pleasure of being right.

But, in doing so, we also set a perilous precedent that invites buyer’s remorse as long people plead their case with conviction. Reinforcing guests’ behavior in this way can extend to other scenarios where recompense is expected: Sending back food they’ve eaten but claim they didn’t like, deciding halfway through a bottle of wine that the wine is off or complaining after the meal that a server manipulated them into ordering more food than they needed. Servers are trained to preempt these maneuvers, but it’s impossible to eliminate them altogether. 

When conflicts with guests arise, restaurants focus on damage control regardless whether there is any merit to the complaint. With the power that social media platforms give individuals to spread misinformation, our alleged crimes never go to trial. One spiteful guest can permanently scar a restaurant’s reputation and that forces restaurateurs run their businesses from a place of fear. The result is that the industry has inadvertently empowered dissatisfied guests to exploit our fecklessness to get their way. That’s what happens when saying yes is the only acceptable answer. 

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Don’t Sabotage Your Restaurant Experience

The initial moments of your restaurant experience can set the tone for the entire meal and you should be mindful of your role in making those moments successful. There are some common pitfalls you can avoid that might injure your relationship with a restaurant staff. Having your server on your side from the beginning will pay dividends when you need something. Cultivating that relationship is a worthwhile investment and you should start earning capital the moment you sit down. Remember: Your server is an advocate for your needs. Spoiling that relationship at any point is not in your best interest. Here are some common mistakes people make that sour their rapport with servers:

Ignoring the Waiter’s Greeting – When your server says hello, he or she is also gauging the temperature of the table. Are you friendly and enthusiastic? Do you seem to want service to play a smaller or larger role in your dining experience? If you seem unfriendly or disinterested (even if it’s not intentional), you risk the server misreading your distraction as ambivalence. Stop whatever you’re doing (for god’s sake get off your damn cellphone) and take a moment to say hello. It will make a big difference in the server’s attitude toward you going forward. 

Rejecting Your Seating Assignment – It’s impossible for every guest to be happy with their table. Some tables are nearer to speakers, some are closer to the air conditioning vents. No table is perfect. Maitre’ds and hosts do their best to seat guests where they are most comfortable, but it can be a very complicated puzzle when parties arrive late or show up in larger or smaller groups. When you walk into a restaurant and immediately start picking furniture, the staff is watching and branding you a difficult guest before you’ve even said a word.

Declaring “We Haven’t Even Looked” at the Menu – You may not like being pestered to order quickly but busy restaurants have time constraints for each booking. Part of a restaurant’s business model is moving tables along as quickly as possible while preserving excellent service. If you put yourself in an adversarial role because you refuse to order in a timely fashion you are unnecessarily casting yourself as an enemy. It’s acceptable to want to slow down, but it’s better to politely ask for more time than to sound like you’re protesting against being rushed. 

Bad Restaurant Behavior

Soliciting the WiFi Password – Restaurants don’t owe you internet service. If they offer it, it’s usually advertised. But if it’s really so important to be connected, ask the server if the restaurant has WiFi after you’re ordered food and drinks not right away. Waitstaff, understandably, can get frustrated serving smartphone zombies all night. It’s a pain in the ass trying to get people’s attention who are constantly on their phones. If you immediately ask for WiFi when you sit down, you’ve become just another zombie. 

Asking Your Waiter’s Name – Guests wrongly think that asking the server his or her name is a way of restoring humanity to the servant/recipient relationship. Tactfully executed, sometimes it can. But when guests ask servers to introduce themselves it can often feel like they need the server to be a puppet. Waiters don’t like when guests invade their personal space and sometimes coming on too strong right off the bat with your need for an introduction is a turn-off. If you need to be on a first name basis, wait until you have a more established relationship with your server before you ask his or her name. 

Making Unnecessary Demands About Water – Of course, you are entitled to your water served however you like but being demanding about the first thing you ask for suggests you can be high maintenance. Asking for water with no ice, lemons on the side, hot water with lemon or bottled water at room temperature may be important to you but understand that doing so may alienate your server. Try to keep your water service simple or ask for modifications later after you’ve already ordered your meal. 

Requesting Bread Before You’ve Ordered – Restaurants will often withhold bread service until you’ve ordered for the obvious reason that you’ll probably order less if you’re filling up on bread. As input costs rise, many restaurants have done away with bread service altogether or charge for it.  If a restaurant sends complementary bread, it’s usually as a courtesy and should be treated as such. If you’re really that hungry, order. 

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