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. 

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. 

Reconsidering Unconditional Hospitality: The Myth of Salvation Through Service

In her episode of Chef’s Table, Asma Khan, reflecting upon her success as a restaurateur, sums up her philosophies about hospitality by saying that “a guest is an incarnation of God.” She envisions her role as a chef beyond the kitchen—devoting herself spiritually to the people she feeds. Chef Kahn’s statement implies that a chef’s path toward achieving enlightenment is found through the joy of her guests.

Today’s diners expect transcendent restaurant experiences which has brought about a dramatic change in the way hospitality is administered. In extreme cases, a restaurant staff must faithfully commit itself to service in the way that some dedicate their lives to a set of religious beliefs. This quest for purity can make modern restaurant work an ascetic pursuit, where holiness can only be achieved through deprivation. Individuals that are incapable of achieving the level of piety necessary to please guests are defrocked. 

In the most dogmatic restaurants, the idea of achieving salvation through hospitality can border on the occult. In reality, supplicating ourselves on a daily basis to serve others exacts an immeasurable psychological toll. Restaurant work is already hazardous, mentally and physically, but being expected to unconditionally love guests who often don’t reciprocate is toxic. We bend but don’t break, yet we cover up our bruises and convince ourselves that abuse comes with the territory. 

One busy Saturday night at a former restaurant job, the staff was relieved to learn that the last reservation was a no-show. The line cooks—drenched in a combination of sweat and animal grease—began gradually breaking down their mise-en-place, as they do every night when they’re given the “all-in” signal from the host stand. There is a ritual to this denouement in busy restaurant kitchens. In the dining room, waiters mustered the necessary adrenaline to shepherd the last few tables to completion. The staff was exhausted, many had already been working for twelve hours straight.  

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Almost thirty minutes after the restaurant had officially closed, the no-show party materialized and, of course, expected to be seated. Many restaurants would have apologetically refused them a table but high-end restaurants, like this one, tend to be more charitable. The manager on duty scurried into the kitchen in a panic to plead with the attending sous chef to accommodate the latecomers. The morale of the staff deflated as the manager made the executive decision to seat the table. 

The dining room was almost empty which meant that the entire staff would need to extend their work day by several more hours to care for one late table. In any other realm where appointments are compulsory—hair salon, doctor’s office, airline, theater—this group would have been denied service. Turning guests away in a restaurant, though, is an act of war—an affront to one of the basic tenets of hospitality. 

Of course, we all put smiles on our faces and treated their party graciously, but the staff was incensed. Putting our feelings aside is part of the job in restaurants—it’s deeply ingrained in our DNA. But should we also be expected to put our well-being aside too? Is there a threshold where the welfare of our staff should be placed above the welfare of our guests?

Occasionally restaurateurs will defend their staff when guests are careless, but the vast majority take a passive approach in the face of impropriety. In hospitality, we’ve been programmed to always take the high road even when our guests’ behavior is beyond reproach. The high road is a one way street. 

Every restaurant worker has witnessed countless tables of loud, inebriated businesspeople destroy the atmosphere of a restaurant with boorish behavior. Despite complaints from neighboring tables, management rarely intervenes to ameliorate the situation. The risk of offending the noisy table isn’t worth appeasing the others who are bothered by it, so we take a docile approach. We tolerate their behavior like bad parents, and they continue misbehaving like spoiled children. 

Instead of asserting ourselves, we’re trained to “kill them with kindness,” even though most of these situations call for discipline. Part of the reason that people so confidently misbehave is because there is so little risk of being reprimanded. Poorly-mannered, paying guests often revel in their immunity. 

We choose to pacify them because there is an unwritten Hippocratic-like oath in hospitality to which we pledge to adhere: Every guest must leave happy, even the ones who arrived miserable. Committed restaurant professionals take that responsibility very personally. But there is a hidden cost to our tolerance. The old tired tropes about how servers can “turn problem guests around” feel out of step with the times. 

We inflict emotional damage on ourselves through the selflessness that service jobs require. Feelings of humility descend too easily into feelings of inferiority and the consequences are corrosive. The psychological baggage we carry around with us from our daily nightmare scenarios manifests itself in relationship problems, workplace harassment, excessive consumption of alcohol, drug abuse and insomnia. And, yet, we come to work everyday and are reminded that denigrating ourselves for the edification of others is the only path toward righteousness. It isn’t. 

The emerging mental health crisis we face in the restaurant industry varies directly with the metastatic popularity of restaurants. The more seriously people take their dining experiences, the more emotional energy is required in the background to make those experiences successful. The harder we work, the more entitled our guests are becoming. As much as we wish we had more leverage, it will always be a buyer’s market. 

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We rarely look at some of the public scandals of abuse and harassment in the restaurant world and blame the culture as a whole. Of course, we must hold rogue individuals accountable for their behavior, but we cannot expect to stem the tide without addressing the underlying dysfunction in our industry.

The deep-seated problem lies in our subconscious belief—upheld by generations of restaurant professionals—that we are less important than our guests. Attempts at self-preservation are routinely met with proselytizing and hospitality jingoism. If you don’t like dealing with difficult people, find another line of work. (See: The comments section of this article for the inevitable backlash.)

The goal in hospitality is to make people happy, but should feeling responsible for other people’s misery also be considered part of the job? Restaurant guests have been conditioned that if they fuss enough, we will cower and meet their demands. We always negotiate with terrorists, and we concede too much because we’re afraid that if we don’t they’ll start killing hostages. 

We need to start by decoupling our satisfaction from the satisfaction of our guests. As restaurant professionals, it’s possible for us to perform at a high level and still not convince our clientele of our greatness. If they don’t leave satisfied, we shouldn’t feel like we’ve failed. Too often, we tie our self-worth to external factors. We obsessively read online reviews, shoulder the burden of guest malpractice and stay silent when dissatisfied people sling mud at our reputation. 

Industry leaders also need to be less rigid about what constitutes good service and more forgiving of their employees when guests are critical. Management should empower staff to stand their ground when confrontation arises. Why should servers have to run to tell mommy and daddy (the managers) every time they have a problem with a guest? Rules should be firm and apply to everyone. Ham-handed attempts to flout the rules should be unapologetically rebuffed. 

Holding our guests to a higher standard has inherent risks but calling them out when they are disrespectful reminds them that we are equals and humanizes the transactional nature of hospitality. If—like Chef Kahn says—our guests are truly godlike, it shouldn’t be too much to expect for them, like God, to also be merciful. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Guest. Amen.