What To Do When Your Guests Have Sticky Fingers

Among the reasons restaurants fail (poor location, inadequate marketing, lack of staff and inventory control, uninspired menu, unreasonable pricing), customer theft is rarely on the radar. And yet, the diner who walks out with your logo beer mug is damaging your restaurant’s bottom line.

After a guest thief takes what they want, the restaurant must purchase replacements and eventually report the thefts to their insurance company, which in the long run will raise their premiums, creating another drag on profitability.

If these folks were going to a friend’s house they wouldn’t think of taking a plate, a mug or a picture off the wall. And yet, as a Washington, D.C., restaurateur recently observed, “If it’s not bolted down, they’ll take it.”

Here’s how some guests justify stealing.

“I just spent a lot of money”

A guest at one of our nightclubs, who spent $5,000 to get $5,000 worth of food and beverage to entertain his 10 guests, took the $500 glass centerpiece on his way out. When we called him the next day, he justified his theft by saying, “I spent $5,000, so I decided to take the centerpiece.”

“These plates will look great in my home”

One of our fine dining restaurants — whose check average is well over $100 per guest —  has show plates that are on the table when the guest arrives, and each plate costs $100.

A few months ago, a guest put two of the plates in her purse because she liked them.

“I collect stuff”

There are great sports bars and steakhouses that go out of their way to put up rare, autographed photographs and memorabilia from athletes and celebrities in their establishments. These are one-of-a-kind items with real value, but somehow guests feel justified taking this property. 

Whitlow’s DC had a guest thief make off with a poster-sized photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A decade passed before the person sent it back, along with an anonymous note of apology.  “They grew up and matured and realized they did the wrong thing, and I think his wife had pushed him to get rid of it,” owner Jon Williams said. “It’s nice when people do the right thing, no matter how long it takes.”

Some restaurateurs consider this the price of doing business – even a form of marketing. The customer took that glass or plate or specially engraved pen because they had a wonderful experience and they want to remember it and share it with others. Some even build thievery into their business plans, knowing that accessories and decor will walk and they budget $10,000 or $20,000 a year to replace them.

But I think it’s a mistake to allow – or even encourage – guests to take your stuff. Here are some ways to discourage thievery.

Security cameras: Cameras are usually in place to monitor staff behavior, but the same can be said for guests — and the resulting recordings give you hard evidence of what the guest did. In the case of the $500 centerpiece, we called the guest the next day and asked him to return it. When he resisted, we let him know that his theft was on camera and that we would be putting it on Facebook along with his name. We had our centerpiece back the same day. 

Now, I don’t necessarily recommend shaming a guest on social media, but it can sometimes work. Todd Thrasher, owner of Tiki TNT in Southwest D.C., once posted footage of a woman stealing one of his favorite South Pacific masks. He posted it on his Instagram, and the resulting crowd-sourcing soon got the thief to return the item. “I shamed the hell out of her,” he said.

Forewarned is forearmed: Another technique is to have a table tent or note on the menu that says to the effect, “Like our mugs/dishes/shot glasses, etc? Ask your server how to purchase them.” Or, “Our plates are available from Amazon.com. Take a photo of the bottom and order yourself a set!”

We went to dinner at a fun Italian restaurant and loved their espresso cups. We asked if they sold them and they said they did not. The manager came out and told us he had some that were slightly chipped, and would we like to purchase a set of four. We said yes and now we have four unique espresso cups, bought and paid for, no thievery required.

Add it to the bill: When he saw the woman slip those $100 plates into her purse, the server did not know what to do and did not want to confront or embarrass the guest. I had the manager put a $400 charge on the check for “gift plates.” The guest pulled the plates out of her purse immediately. A note in the menu noting that guests will be charged would go a long way toward discouraging sticky fingers.

Nail it down or put it out of reach: Low-tech solutions are also effective. A restaurant that had its cheeky “don’t do coke in the restroom” sign stolen several times finally put it higher on the wall so it couldn’t be easily reached. There are companies that will help you secure valuable memorabilia behind plexiglass with sturdy mounting.

Add a “souvenir store”: Take a page from Hard Rock Café and Cracker Barrel and have a little display case with signature items, such as menus, postcards, T-shirts and, yes, shot glasses and mugs. Price them reasonably, even at cost, so at least you will have covered the expense.

Remember, the cost of dining out pays for the food and service, nothing more. Nail down your bottom line by securing  service items and décor.