One day this summer, a thief walked off with a giant plastic sculpture from a restaurant in Tarpon Springs, Florida. The sculpture weighed 300 pounds and resembled a large rock formation--rather useless to the outside world, in other words. No one in the restaurant industry was surprised.
"If it's not bolted down, someone will take it," a manager at Humperdink's in Las Colinas complains. "You wouldn't believe what we lose." The manager asked not to be identified, perhaps because her restaurant once lost a couch. Yes, a couch. And a wingback chair. Oh, and a lamp. She even screws paintings into the wall to prevent their disappearance.
Every time local residents eat out, they rub shoulders with the criminal element, apparently. According to a Restaurant Business survey, establishments lose something like 5 to 8 percent of gross sales to theft. This translates to roughly $70,000 per year in lost inventory for restaurants earning $75,000 per month, or one month's revenue. NCS, a research firm in Minneapolis, claims that employee theft from restaurants totals between $15 billion to $25 billion annually. Houston's at Preston and Northwest Highway admits to losses averaging about $2,000 per month. "Breakage is the biggest expense, but I don't know if you can track theft accurately," says Greg Sonnenberg, operations manager for Houston's.
While everyone agrees that theft exists as a normal part of restaurant life, the amounts stolen at one time rarely merit police investigation. Hard numbers come only from industry surveys and restaurant consultants. The latter naturally tend toward the alarmist: Chuck Gohn, president of Restaurant Associates Northwest, states that establishments may lose $200 per day in theft. Houston's sets aside $15,000 per month for operational costs, including replacement of broken or lost items. Compounding the problem, staff members often discard items by mistake. "It's hard to determine what's lost due to theft and what's accidentally thrown away," says Ralph Henz, general manager of Jaxx Café in Addison. Humperdink's sets magnets in the lids of kitchen garbage cans to snag tossed silverware, but such measures cannot prevent all accidental discards.
Yet theft remains a problem. Each night in Dallas, saltshakers and peppershakers, glassware, even potted plants disappear from restaurants. Even relatively respectable patrons sneak off with packets of sugar or sugar substitutes. "We have some people come up and ask to buy things, but just as many steal," says Sonnenberg.
"People don't understand that this stuff is not free," the Humperdink's manager complains. "We don't provide it to use in your homes; that's why Wal-Mart and Dillards exist."
Smalltime restaurant thieves around Dallas prefer silverware, at least according to restaurateurs. "Silverware is huge," Henz says. Jaxx loses approximately $150 in silverware per month. Henz believes that only 1,000 pieces of silverware really exist in Dallas, passing continuously from restaurant to patron and back. "Go to any college dorm or anyone's first apartment and I bet the silverware and glassware came from a restaurant," the Humperdink's manager says. Her restaurant provides straws with iced teas, thus frustrating potential spoon thieves. We Oui manager Matt Martinez recalls visiting a restaurant with "the worst silverware I've ever seen." When he inquired, he was told they lost so much silverware in the past that they finally resorted to the cheap stuff.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Americans committed 5.7 million property crimes of less than $50 last year, accounting for 36 percent of all property thefts. Yet aside from frustration, such petty crime rarely disturbs restaurateurs, who generally add such operational losses into the cost of food. "People sometimes ask why prices are so high," the Humperdink's manager explains, "well, we have to cover the cost of theft and loss."
More upsetting are the thefts of larger items--the aforementioned couches and sculptures--along with anything else not nailed down. Sonnenberg lost three handsome pepper mills in one week, at a cost of $40 each. "The largest thing we lost was a martini shaker in the shape of a rooster," says Sonnenberg. "I had to go out and buy a new cock." OK, it's a cheap joke, but the theft was real. Martinez lost a painting of President Kennedy while working at a restaurant in San Antonio. Humperdink's once set out a display featuring different wines available at the restaurant. It promptly disappeared. Quite wisely, they used empty bottles filled with a potent mix of water and food coloring, providing someone with a memorable night. "I don't think thieves have any remorse or guilt," the manager asserts. However, the wine-bottle crooks probably did reconsider their particular action after a glass or two. "You learn to hot-glue things down," the nameless manager adds, "but within six months they've still taken everything."
Indeed, when a perpetrator apparently failed to lift a hot-glued trophy from a display table at Humperdink's, the thief somehow dismantled the award, leaving the base behind, still firmly attached to the table. Fortunately no one took off with the table. Henz tells of a college prank where his roommates stole a 'Please Wait to be Seated' sign from Pizza Hut. The NCS reports that even managers pilfer $80 worth of inventory every year on average.
"The largest amount of pilferage is definitely by employees," says Sonnenberg. "Employees take everything: plates, glasses, alcohol, food. But you don't know about it until you do inventory." According to the NCS survey, each restaurant employee steals an average of $218 worth of inventory annually. Restaurateurs even manage a laugh when they tell of apartment cabinets around the Dallas area that are stocked with items from local establishments.
Perhaps this cavalier attitude comes from sheer helplessness. "We don't try to stop patrons unless we see someone blatantly stealing," says Sonnenberg, who considers it poor customer relations to frisk people on their way out of Houston's. Managers combat employee theft through inventory checks, by keeping an eye on stuff smuggled away in pockets or trash bags, and by rotating shifts to isolate suspected thieves. Even then, they cannot curtail the outflow of inventory. "It is impossible to completely eliminate counterproductive behaviors and theft in the workplace," says Linette Heatherly, personnel research coordinator at NCS, sounding just like a social scientist.
After a while, restaurateurs simply get used to it. Or, as Henz says, "it's just something you deal with. It's like towels in the hotel, you figure it into the cost."
Just keep an eye on your booth-neighbors next time you sit down for a meal.
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