How to Mitigate Table Theft at Your Restaurant

You're buying supplies for your restaurant, not furnishing your guests' homes.
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Every restaurant should include tableware replacement in its budget, but it doesn't hurt to take a few extra steps to minimize theft. (Photo: tbodin/Shutterstock)

Have you ever left a restaurant having accidentally taken the cloth napkin with you, or perhaps snuck a spoon or glass into your to-go bag to take home as a memento from a special occasion, such as a birthday or marriage proposal?

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“It’s incredible the stuff that people steal when it gets set down in front of them. You might as well gift wrap the cheese grater if somebody asks you to leave it.” -Steve Zagor (Photo: Steve Zagor)

You may think this act of souvenir pilfering is harmless, but for restaurant owners, it comes with a big price tag, said Steve Zagor, professor of restaurant management and entrepreneurship at the Institute of Culinary Education.

“It’s incredible the stuff that people steal when it gets set down in front of them. You might as well gift wrap the cheese grater if somebody asks you to leave it. The pepper mills, silverware, the salt and pepper shakers — you end up furnishing people’s apartments,” he said.

As a small business owner, you’re responsible for every penny you’ve invested in your restaurant, and when something goes missing, it’s like watching your hard-earned cash go down the drain. While it’s nearly impossible to stop all table theft from occurring at your establishment, Zagor shared a few tips for lowering your risk.

Budget for replacements

When you’re in the restaurant business, losing tableware to guest theft and getting thrown out accidentally is inevitable. Zagor advised owners to plan for replacements in your restaurant budget.

“Every restaurateur should build in a certain percentage of loss for china, glass, silver, service equipment and such. Usually 1 to 2 percent of sales is set asid e for the replacement of china, glass and silver — whether it’s through theft, breakage or being accidentally thrown out,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s really just a cost of doing business, so you have to accept it as that.”

Related: How to Deal with a ‘Dine-and-Dash’ Scenario

Be mindful of valuable items on display

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Charming decor is important in your restaurant, but you should always carefully asses the value of the items you put on display. (Photo: Smirnof/Shutterstock)

While you may give yourself some wiggle room by covering replacement costs in your budget, that doesn’t mean there’s no way to minimize the impact of customer theft in your restaurant. Because you know the temptation is there, be mindful about value in your restaurant design when selecting place settings, serving equipment and even decor.

“The things that people will try to walk out with is beyond your imagination,” said Zagor. “I interrupted a guy one time trying to take a bronze sculpture off one of our walls. You just never know.”

To minimize the risk of theft, carefully scrutinize the value of items put within reach of customers, he advised.

“That’s not to say you should be untrue to your concept, but keep in mind that people are going to have an opportunity to steal things. When you put items on the wall, they need to be really fastened to the wall with meaning — not just hung a hook, because somebody may take it. Keep in mind this is not like furnishing a home. It’s furnishing a commercial business with high traffic,” he said.

Related: 4 Things You Can Learn From a Restaurant Consultant

Keep waitstaff accountable

When it comes to table theft, “You may have a co-conspirator in the service staff,” warned Zagor.

Honest patrons will sometimes ask their server for permission to take an item as a souvenir, and while the owner or manager would always decline, the waitstaff may choose to look the other way — or even assist the customer — in hopes of receiving a better tip.

“You have to train all your staff to do the right thing, and monitor them as well,” he said. “I used to have a problem with staff giving away bottles of Pellegrino or Evian. Immediately, if I had a suspicion, I would pull up the check and see if that bottle was on the check. Then I would preemptively go to the waiter and say, ‘I know you haven’t rung that up yet. I’m sure you’re going to,’ which puts that person in the position of saying, ‘Yes, I am.’”

Related: The Pros and Cons of Adopting a No-Tipping Policy

Install video cameras

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Installing dummy cameras can deter customers from stealing without you having to spend the extra funds on video surveillance. (Photo: jtairat/Shutterstock)

Another way to deter table theft is video surveillance. Whether you install real or dummy cameras, conscientious customers are less likely to steal when they think they are being watched.

While dining-room cameras are becoming ubiquitous in restaurants, there are some limitations to the technology, said Zagor.

“In New York, the cameras aren’t allowed to record sound, so you don’t always get the whole story,” he said. For instance, if the customer asked to take home the pepper mill and their waiter gave permission, “the camera doesn’t say that the waiter has said to take it. It just sees somebody putting something away. So the camera’s not giving you a defined course of action.”

Related: Four On-the-Cheap Security Alternatives for Your Business

Evaluate if it’s worth the pursuit

When you know someone has taken an item from your restaurant, what should you do? Zagor said restaurant owners and managers must decide when it’s worth pursuing the issue and risking kickback, and when it’s best to just let it go.

“If someone’s putting a fork or a menu in their bag, it may be the cost of doing business. If it’s a $100 pepper mill, maybe it’s still the cost of doing business. If it’s a $5,000 Waterford sugar bowl, that may not be a cost of doing business, and you certainly want to ask the person,” he said.

Fortunately, most restaurants experience table theft with low-value items. In the rare case that something more costly does get stolen, you would likely report it to your local authorities, then file a claim with your insurance provider.

“Unfortunately, consumers don’t see what they are doing as wrong,” he said. “They see it as part of the transaction of going out to eat; part of the experience.”

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