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. 

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. 

Why The CNBC “Tipping Hack” Guy Made The Internet Go Apeshit

A viral video advertising a nifty “hack” to save money on tipping caused a stir last week on social media. Instead of calculating a percentage of the total bill, the video by CNBC reporter Zack Guzman encourages diners determine their tip by calculating a percentage of the pre-tax total. Understandably, his advice was perceived as a way to shortchange waitstaff rather than sound financial advice that would “help save you over $400 a year.” Even though the video was originally posted over a year ago, Food Twitter lost its shit.

In Guzman’s defense, his video and the accompanying article highlight the fact that hourly wages for tipped employees in most states are significantly below the minimum. He isn’t arguing that waitstaff deserve less money. He’s simply trying to offer an alternate way of computing gratuity. Even though tipping is a voluntary act, restaurant goers (including millennials who lack disposable income) increasingly resent having to compensate for the shortfall in restaurant worker’s income.

Ironically, a majority of people who live in states with 8-9% sales taxes look at their bill and blindly double the tax when they leave a tip. In doing so, they’re tipping on the pre-tax amount. Restaurants that host private events often institute policy to assign gratuity as a percentage of the subtotal of the bill before tax. In other words, it’s already not unusual for people to calculate gratuities exactly the way that Mr. Guzman is advocating they do. So why is everyone so upset?

Tipping shouldn’t be a thoughtless act. If the staff spent the entire course of your meal focused on your satisfaction, the least you can do as a guest is take a moment to reflect on its service when you settle your bill. Your generosity shouldn’t be predicated on a judgement of the service experience or your “scoring” the level of hospitality you received. It’s important to remember that the price of your food hinges on the willingness of a team of individuals to serve you for less than minimum wage with the hope that generous tipping will make up the difference.

The problem with Mr. Guzman’s video is that it frames tipping as a superfluous expense, one that ignores the relationship that gratuity should have with performance. In its purest form, a tip is a gesture of appreciation to a staff of people who’ve facilitated your enjoyment of delicious food in an atmosphere other than your own home for a few hours without having to clean up after yourself. When the staff does it well, a generous tip should be bestowed on those facilitators with pleasure. Saving a few bucks on your meal is always nice, but no one—except perhaps maybe Mr. Guzman—thinks it’s should come at the expense of a server’s income. 

Waiters are accustomed to being victims of schemes that shortchange them on their tips. It often occurs unintentionally. Guests who pay with gift cards or partial cash payments, for example, will often absentmindedly tip on the remaining balance after the gift card or cash is deducted. Large parties find convoluted, mathematically-impossible ways to divide the bill then forget to include a proper tip in their calculus.

Guests who don’t feel responsible for tipping on wine charges might ask to split their bottles onto a separate check. It could be they have an expense account and the company won’t subsidize their alcohol consumption (or they need a way to hide it). Other times, they want to treat the rest of their party to a few expensive bottles or just don’t want to share the expense if everyone at the table wasn’t drinking. Either way, it’s a dreaded scenario for waiters, because all too often separating the wine charges is a stealth way guests avoid tipping a percentage of their total bill.  

Of course, the tip doesn’t always suffer in these situations but any abnormalities in the payment process are usually a bad omen. Waiters are used to inconsistent tips, but it stings a lot more when the skimming is on purpose. Guests who are displeased with service have a right to tip poorly or not to leave a tip at all, but they should do so mindfully. Reducing the act of tipping to a simple mathematical equation—especially one that relies on this type of accounting gimmickry—does everyone a disservice.