Sticky fingers: What customers
steal from Toronto restaurants
Chefs and restaurant owners have seen plenty of different items go missing over the years, leaving them exasperated and confused
There's a word for people who steal things. They are called thieves.
With all due respect to the person who steals a loaf of bread to feed their starving family – or the injunction against beginning a story with the lazy trope of a dictionary definition – it's important to know what words mean.
That's because customers steal from restaurants every day – cutlery, glassware, jars of peppers, bottles of chili oil, handmade bowls, menus, toiletry, even paintings right off the wall – suggesting they don't think of it as theft.
When I met New York chef Greg Baxtrom, he was serving oysters with aji amarillo hot sauce from bottles no bigger than a Lego piece. How, I asked, did he get the sauce into the bottles? A syringe. And how often do customers try to steal them? Every single day.
We typically think of stealing from restaurants as the classic dine-and-dash scam. An Australian man who recently attempted to swim into the Coral Sea after eating two lobsters in an East Coast restaurant indicates the intelligence level of those who try to pull off this kind of caper. We're not talking Ocean's 11 here.
It's the regular people, spontaneously slipping small items into their pockets and purses, who are tougher to spot. And while the missing items may not be expensive, it's a constant and costly drain on supplies.
Any time I comment to a restaurateur about a particularly nice object in their space, if it's small and not nailed down, they shake their head and tell me how often customers steal it. And that, at the risk of trotting out an overused maxim, is why we can't have nice things.
Here, Toronto restaurateurs share what goes missing, how often and why.
Felipe Faccioli, chef/owner of Mata
Missing: jars of pickled Brazilian peppers, wooden boards, L'Occitane hand soap, glassware, cutlery
"We serve three kinds of unique Brazilian peppers – Cumari, Bode Vermelha and Malagueta – we get through one of our wholesale suppliers that bring South American items. We don't get them often, so we have to pickle them. We sell our peppers for $8 a jar. We tell our customers that, and some people still steal them."
Shawn Cooper, co-owner of Frank's Kitchen
Missing: hand towels, salt and pepper shakers, espresso spoons, steak knives, candle holders
"Why do people take things from hotel rooms? They paid for the room, so they feel entitled to do so. They figure these things should be included in the price of admission. Also, people take stuff as mementos, because it's a thrill, because they think it's funny and because they can. Had a guy once walk out with my very large peppermill. He got as far as his car. He thought it was funny, trying to impress his date. She was not impressed."
Grant van Gameren, co-owner of El Rey, Bar Raval and Harry's Char Broil & Dining Lounge
Missing: metal yerba mate straws, vintage glassware, shot glasses and clay copitas from Mexico (El Rey); soap dispensers, clay cazuelas (Bar Raval); poker chips, ketchup (Harry's)
"I think it's easier for people to steal from a 'business' than an actual person."
Darlene Mitchell, owner of Greta Solomon's
Missing: cotton bathroom towels, toothbrushes, dental floss, toothpaste, steak knives
"The stealing thing is a rarity. It's a conundrum that's somewhere between brazen and amusing. What people don't realize is that when things are stolen, the cost has to be subsidized in other ways. Why do people steal things? The thrill usually is the simple answer. The things that people steal from restaurants are not because they are in dire need of it. These are not poor people. It's the cheap thrill. Winona Ryder syndrome. I just noticed on Wednesday night that I am short at least three Laguiole cheese knives. At least they have good taste."
Tono Pedron, kitchen manager of Baka Gallery Café
Missing: squeeze bottles filled with chile de arbol salsa
"At least every week, we find that one salsa bottle got stolen. It usually happens during the rush hour, so the staff doesn't even notice exactly when and how are those taken. It sucks. The cost is about $6, including the bottle itself, the salsa and labour."
Greg White, former head bartender at El Catrin
Missing: branded glasses
"People stealing the glasses was pretty much a daily occurrence. We actually started offering them for sale to try to slow it down and have some control. But when you work in a place where a lot of tourists come and you package something in a unique container, it's inevitable. People want a souvenir."
Max Rimaldi, co-owner of Enoteca Sociale and Pizzeria Libretto
Missing: chili oil bottles, cutlery, glassware, menus, 12 wall-mounted prints by Los Angeles artist Retro Whale (Kelly Puissegur)
"I go in, I'm looking at this wall, and there's a big gaping hole. The next week, another. It got to the point when we almost had no art left in that hallway. And then they started taking art from the main dining room. I'm sure that back in the college days, I might have taken a shot glass with me. I thought it was funny, a memory of the evening – a souvenir. I guess it's karma."