For as long as there have been restaurants, customers have been stealing meals. Known commonly as a "dine and dash," guests leave without paying, stiffing operators on the victuals, servers on their tips and leaving both parties asking why.
Those caught in the act often report doing it for the thrill, while others claim they were hungry and had no money. Since the onset of the recession, some have speculated that lightened pocketbooks might motivate more people to get a steal of a meal.
Paul Paz, a self-described "career waiter," industry trainer, speaker and founder of Waitersworld.com, said he has not noticed an increase in "walkouts" at the moderately upscale restaurant where he works, but some of his restaurant colleagues say otherwise.
"I'm definitely hearing about an increase, but it's generally in lower-priced restaurants," said Paz, who lives in Tigard, Ore. "I think that the more sophisticated the restaurant, the more sophisticated the clientele, though I have seen it before."
Paz once served a lavish lunch to a pair of businessmen who appeared more than able to pay for their meal, but who vanished after heading to the bathroom. A theft setup was more obvious on another occasion: A young and casually dressed couple began ordering copious amounts of expensive food and drinks, and Paz became suspicious.
"I left my station for a minute, and when I came back, they were gone," he said. "The only thing they left was a check, which we don't accept, and it was stolen, too."
Paz said servers need to trust their guts and be aware of anything that signals that "something out of the ordinary is going on" if they're to stop such an offense. But Michael Raysess, a server in Malibu, Calif., said some restaurants layouts make that difficult.
"The restaurant [where he last worked] is just physically a large place and with outdoor seating," said Raysess, a 26-year veteran server. "If they want to, they can walk right off the deck there and get away. É The problem is I'm not over them all the time because I'm walking 25 yards away to get drinks."
Since Michael Beckmann, manager at Boombozz Pizzeria and Taphouse in Louisville, Ky., ran out on a few meals when he was younger, he said he knows how to train his front-of-the-house staff on what to look for.
"It's all about creating a distraction: You confuse a waitress, get them to do something for you away from the table, like asking for a lot of refills, some of you go to the bathroom and then the rest bust a move," Beckmann said. "The trick is to create a team atmosphere where you watch out for each other's tables and watch for signs that something's up."
Beckmann tried to avoid calling it profiling, but he said it was difficult not to get suspicious when someone walks into a nice restaurant in "baggy shorts and a T-shirt asking for shots of Patron for his buddies."
"It's out of place, and that tells you something," he said.
Paz said waitstaff cutbacks in some restaurants make walkouts easier than ever because servers have more tables than ever to manage.
Raysess said dine-and-dash incidents are less common in Malibu, but credit-card-related scams are on the rise. Guests don't sign their credit card receipts before leaving, and then they call back and contest the charges. Without a signature, proving the cardholder initiated the transaction is difficult.
"Once a customer rang up a bill for $400, didn't sign the receipt and called back to contest the charge," he said. "We knew they'd been there before because they'd even made a reservation that night."
Paz also said he is seeing the card receipt scam.
"I think they have an idea that if we don't have the receipts, they don't have to pay," he said. "And when they do that, there's no tip."
Even if a restaurateur is lucky enough to catch a thief in the act, confronting them is a tricky business, said Barry Shuster, an attorney in Cary, N.C. If an owner detains a suspect, he should call police immediately to handle the situation rather than attempting to hold the thief for any length of time. If the suspect tries to run, matters become much more complicated, since both the staff and perpetrator could be injured.
"You don't want an overzealous staff member applying excessive force to the person committing the crime and risking a lawsuit," said Shuster, who also teaches hospitality law at two North Carolina universities. "You don't want to apprehend an individual if it could escalate into violence. [And if they get behind the wheel], you're running the threat of hurting other customers in the parking lot."
If a subject can be followed to a car, Shuster recommends getting the make, model and plate number and calling 911. If the criminal escapes on foot, get a good description and turn that over to police as well.
Above all, he said, have a plan in place that the staff is trained to execute should a dine and dash occur.
"Training and education are vital in these circumstances," Shuster said. "It can avoid a lot of problems in the end because people know what to do and what not to do."