Stolen Restaurant Napkins Are Just a Start


Joined Apr 4, 2000
Stolen Restaurant Napkins Are Just a Start
By Donna Paul

ON a recent Friday night at Ten Penh, a sleek fusion restaurant in Washington, three friends gathered around a table of small luxuries: a tin of caviar the size of a hockey puck, many pink cosmopolitans and three mother-of-pearl caviar spoons.

It was an evening to savor. And one of the women — a 32-year-old design professional who will remain nameless — wanted a little something to help remember it. She wanted one of those little spoons.

"I rationalized that the restaurant probably had 200 of them," she said. And with that thought, she slipped the spoon into her bag. After wiping it clean with a napkin, of course.

As chefs have achieved celebrity status, dining out has become a theatrical event, with the setting and the props as thrilled over as the tuna tartare. Restaurants have become temples of design, filled with beautiful objects. And diners are helping themselves to more than just the bread. A lot more.

From $3 water glasses to $1,200 silver ice buckets, from vintage photographs hanging on the walls to scented candles burning in the bathrooms — if it isn't nailed down, diners have walked off with it. Over the course of a year, restaurants around the country lose as much as 3 percent of their earnings to theft by customers who seem to be getting more brazen by the minute. Demitasse spoons, Peugeot pepper mills, imported wineglasses, Frette linens, framed artwork, serving platters, Champagne buckets. The list of stolen goods boggles the imagination. And the ways restaurateurs are coping with the phenomenon is changing the dining experience for everyone.

"I'm considering installing metal detectors at the door," said Geoffrey Zakarian, the chef and owner of Town in Manhattan. He was only half joking. Within three months of the restaurant's opening last March, at least 125 of its dot-patterned custom-designed glasses were missing. Not to mention the 60 place settings of Richard Meier flatware that disappeared, or the 200 logo ashtrays.
Sitting at the bar on a recent afternoon, Mr. Zakarian gestured to the silver cocktail shakers and almost casually mentioned how they have been taken, "with ice still in them." Once, he watched a customer open her purse and pop two glasses inside it. As she left, he introduced himself and said, "I am flattered that you have chosen my glasses to steal, enjoy them."

Perhaps Danny Meyer should have been even more flattered. At his restaurant in the Flatiron district, Gramercy Tavern, a designer sconce was ripped from the wall in the men's room during the dinner service. Mr. Meyer didn't bother replacing it. Still, he wondered, "How do you possibly add value, for the customer, to the experience of going into the bathroom?" So, he burns ginger and grapefruit candles by Jo Malone that cost him $25 each. And those are out the door on a daily basis.

At D'Artagnan in Midtown, Ariane Daguin, an owner, trained employees to count every item on the table and be sure it all comes back, particularly the $32 Laguiole steak knives. "Those were easy to take because you could fold them," she said.

One night a waiter spotted a man putting one in his napkin. "So what I did was, I put it on the bill," Ms. Daguin said. "And when they saw the bill, they decided to return the knife. That's how we dealt with it."

Then there is the matter of stolen artwork. Incredibly, large paintings and photographs disappear from restaurant walls. At Colvin Run Tavern, Bob Kinkead's new spot in suburban Virginia, "we caught someone taking a photograph of me and Bill Clinton," Mr. Kinkead said. "You know, under a raincoat, one of those deals. I said `Give it back,' and he gave it back."

Eleven Madison Park in New York had a $1,500 vintage photograph taken.

And Lydia Shire, the chef and owner of Biba in Boston, was crushed when one of her treasured possessions vanished: "The day my mother's painting was stolen, that was it for me," she said.

Since then, Ms. Shire has taken over Locke-Ober, one of Boston's oldest dining establishments, and she has had other losses to endure: a $1,200 silver Champagne bucket from Paris, silver coasters and a Murano glass decanter. All are gone.

The impulse to take things is powerful, and complicated. Suzanne Goin, the chef at Lucques in Los Angeles, says customers think that because they're spending money it is acceptable for them to take what they want. They may want a souvenir of the evening, like the woman at Ten Penh, or a thrill, or even a measure of revenge, if they were unhappy with the experience.

Some simply can't resist the allure of a great-looking object. One diner at Town, a 50-year-old man who calls himself an obsessive collector, entered the men's room and was struck by the display of plastic Statue of Liberty replicas arranged grid-like on the wall. "I thought it was incredible, innovative, really cool," he said. And as his eyes scanned the wall, he noticed five had been removed. He wiggled one of the statues. It popped off — and went right into his pocket.

After 200 statues were taken, the restaurant sealed them all behind plexiglass.

Restaurants figure on losing 2 to 3 percent of their "service ware" over the course of a year, said Arlene Spiegel, the president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates, a food and beverage consulting firm in Manhattan.

Most chefs agree that theft contributes to the rising cost of menu prices — though not enormously. They chalk it up to the cost of doing business, something that's more of a constant nuisance than a serious dollar issue. The items stolen aren't usually worth enough to submit an insurance claim, let alone a crime report. And even when they are, restaurateurs tend not to. Not one of the dozens interviewed for this article has ever prosecuted a customer for theft.

"It's really expensive to prosecute," Mr. Kinkead said. "For the amount you're going to spend, and the time spent in court, it's not worth it."

Prof. Robert McCrie, who teaches security management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that everyone in the hospitality industry struggles with this issue. "The conflict is, what is the patron permitted to take with impunity and encouragement?" he said. "Business cards, matchbooks, leftover food — that's it. Beyond that, these people are committing a criminal act, and should be treated as such." If a small item is taken, it's petty larceny, he said; if the value is $1,000 or more, according to the New York State penal law, it is grand larceny.

Gary Levy, a partner at J. H. Cohn, an accounting and consulting firm that specializes in restaurants, said that his clients budget 2 to 3 percent of their gross sales to replacing "lost" items. That includes breakage, wear and tear, and theft.

"Anything with writing on it says `take me,' " said George Germon, an owner of Al Forno in Providence, R.I. Tracy Nieporent, the marketing director for the Myriad restaurant group, which owns several New York restaurants, concurs. "An item is very game for taking when the restaurant's name is on it," he said.

The restrooms, however, seem to have their own subculture, where emboldened thieves will stop at nothing. Faucets are the big item here. Yes, faucets. Mr. Germon woefully tells his tale of the disappearance of an antique bronze fixture from France. He had had a pair of them installed in the men's room. One evening, as the chefs were tending to the wood fire, preparing the restaurant's famous grilled pizza, someone else was busy in the men's room, removing the precious antique. The thief even took the time to install a replacement faucet that was a cheap American reproduction. "I couldn't believe it — whoever did this knew exactly how," Mr. Germon said. "They were so good, they even used Teflon tape."
A similar thing happened at Oran Mor, a restaurant on Nantucket. On a busy Saturday night, as Peter Wallace, the chef and an owner, was sweating over the stove, he was told that the faucet handles in the ladies' room had been removed. This time, the thief left no replacement. "It was so infuriating," Mr. Wallace said. "We had to use vise grips to get through the night."

At Lucques, Ms. Goin laments the loss of flowers from the restrooms. "The customers walk right out the door with them," she said.

Preventing theft, said Stephen Zagor, the director of management programs at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York, is a matter of vigilance. "Keeping a watchful eye," he said. Without the customer noticing, of course. "We teach our managers-to-be or our owners-to-be to impart a feeling of ownership to the waiters."

For example, what seems to be a gracious act of service — the tuxedo-clad waiter wielding a pepper mill the size of a baseball bat — is more likely a restaurateur's attempt to prevent theft of pepper mills that once sat on the table, Mr. Meyer said.

Bradley Ogden, the Northern California restaurateur, makes the waiters responsible for retrieving the small saucepans he uses to serve some dishes at his new restaurant, Parcel 104, in Santa Clara. He figures that the pans are likely targets, and says making the waiters feel responsible gives them "ownership mentality."

It isn't just the waiters who are watching, either. The bathroom attendant is there to do more than hand out towels, and those video cameras restaurants have begun installing to monitor service also help keep an eye on customers.

"It is obviously a theft issue, but it's also a security issue," Ms. Spiegel said of the cameras and attendants. "No one will come forward and tell you it's a theft issue."

Restaurant designers are becoming more aware of creating "control points," she said, meaning that expensive objects are placed where someone is always nearby. Steve Hanson, the owner of Blue Water Grill, Blue Fin and other Manhattan restaurants, uses antitheft hinges to bolt all artwork to the walls and glues down other pieces of art.

Tom Douglas, the chef and owner of the Dahlia Lounge in Seattle, learned the hard way. He was busy cleaning the kitchen one night when one of his prize $1,000 fish- shaped lamps disappeared from the dining room. The last table was lingering late, he recalls, and the waiters weren't paying attention. It was only after the room cleared that they noticed the papier-mâché and bamboo lamp on that table was gone.

"It was not an easy thing to take, the shade was the shape and size of a 15-pound rockfish," Mr. Douglas said. After that, he screwed the lamps to the tabletops.

No wonder some restaurants are becoming less extravagant with their décor. It's a double-edged sword, said Mr. Meyer, who believes that one of the ways restaurants distinguish themselves is by making the tabletop look special. But the more attractive it is, the more guests want what's on it.

When Mr. Germon opened Al Forno with Johanne Killeen, the couple hand-carried 2,000 pieces of overscaled silverware from Italy. In six years they were all gone. Then, Ms. Killeen said, the couple went to France and brought back more silver. That, too, is gone. Today, their flatware is an Asian knockoff of the original Italian pattern.

Ms. Spiegel knows of a restaurant that went to a cheaper napkin once they began noticing that they always came back with fewer Frette napkins than they put out.

"It's a collection of things that devalue the overall dining experience," Ms. Spiegel said, "and I think at this time, in this economic climate, restaurants are really looking at these ways to save money."

Finally, many restaurateurs have decided the best strategy is to simply go into the housewares business themselves.

Mr. Zakarian has since made the more "popular" items at Town for sale. Not a bad idea, considering he sells the pepper mills that cost him $75 for $200. D'Artagnan also sells the Laguiole knives (though Ms. Daguin worries that when diners see the price, they may be more inclined to steal them, not less) and the silverware. If customers ask, Mr. Meyer, who is also an owner of Eleven Madison Park, Tabla and other Manhattan restaurants, offers much of what they use, wholesale.

One 60-year-old woman, who has been taking silverware and plates from restaurants for nearly 40 years, spoke about it with passion. And entitlement. "It was all about the shape and having the name on it," she said, of the many spoons she has slipped into purses and pockets from such legendary places as La Grenouille, the Carlyle Hotel, the Tour d'Argent in Paris and the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo. Even a spoon from the Mount Sinai cafeteria. Yes, the hospital.

Now all are glued neatly into a gold frame and on display in her dining room. Recently the spoon collector has slacked off. And not because restaurants are making it more difficult. Most, she complains, no longer emblazon their logos on their spoons.

"If there's a place that still has some silver with a name on it," she said, "let me know."

The New York Times
Joined Jan 9, 2002
This is so outrageous. People really need to get a clue.

What do you want to bet that every single one of those people who stole something from the restaurants would be infuriated if they found out someone stole it from their house...

"It's MINE! I stole it!!"
Joined Feb 11, 2002
Yeah, I read that article in the Times too. It's so unfortunately true - I can't begin to tell you the things I've seen ripped off from my old restaurant- we lost an entire case of shot glasses (they WERE beautiful) in 1 week - they disappeared out the door with the customer. Big lighted table top candles-
still lit! under peoples jackets out the door. Flatware... forget about it...
I am working on a new place and one of the biggest discusions with the G.M. and owners is selection of items that we can afford to lose or easily replace.
We're trying to design an easy giveaway (like a logoed ashtray) that we can AFFORD to have stolen on a regular basis...:eek:
Joined Aug 4, 2000
I regret ever having shown to"a friend" my photo of the Beach Boys that was autographed by all of them in 1963. I will probably go to jail if I ever catch up with her. Grrrrrrrrrr...


Joined Apr 4, 2000
I should confess I am guilty of leaving with a spoon in my pocket. I was very young at the time. I didn't think anything of it. I've grown up since then and it would never cross my mind to do that. I can not believe how many people are willing to leave with a souvenir and do not think they are being dishonest. The things you learn...

I would have never thought to bring my toolbox to a restaurant so I would be able to leave with a lamp, frame or water faucet.

The funny thing is that most restaurants will be happy to accomodate if you only ask. Some will sell you the glass you love or will tell you who their supplier is.
Joined Nov 19, 1999
I even have the theft problem at the sorority house. It is hard to work within a budget when all of the necessities disappear out the back door. Presumably, they are in the hands of people who are moving out or who already have their own apartments. I have resorted to using paper and plastic. It wouldn' be too hard for the boys houses to come in and walk out the back door with kitchen ware either. They do it a time or two every year as a joke, then return the stuff. It is infuriating, bu unstoppable. We've even had the sofa pillows stolen!
Joined Mar 2, 2002
Ah, the joy of having college students as customers! Actually, most of the time I couldn't ask for a better market, but every semester during rush, decorative cacti at the front of my store start dissapearing. Pretty mild as far as hazing goes, I guess, but not for the cacti!
Joined May 6, 2001
You have to wonder what these people are thinking. My sister, as a teenager, stole (cheap) flatware still wrapped in the paper napkin and paper logo ring-from a local chain because she and her then boyfriend had celebrated their anniversary there. I found it quite amusing because she was deeply religious and often looked down upon me for not attending church enough. I guess "thou shalt not steal" is only applicable if you don't have a sentimental reason for theft. *sigh* Some people.............
Joined Nov 25, 2001
This is altogether scandalous. I cannot believe people behave so horribly. What could posses somone to do something like that... I will never know. --april--
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