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Illustration by MARY KIRKPATRICK

Corey Mintz is the author of The End of Restaurants as We Knew Them, and What Comes After.

Ontario is proposing legislation that prevents employers from deducting dine and dash costs from employee’s wages. If you have to ask why, or why now, look to the story of Sharif Rahman, the Owen Sound proprietor of The Curry House, who was fatally beaten outside his own restaurant in August for confronting diners over an unpaid bill. Incidents of “dine and dash,” a too-breezy colloquialism drawn in stark relief by the ugliness of this crime, are on the rise.

“There’s definitely an increase and a problem,” says Kelly Higginson, president and chief executive of Restaurants Canada.

Ms. Higginson points to an overall increase in civil disobedience in and around restaurants – fights, graffiti, staff fearing to walk home late at night – being linked to economic precariousness; the rising interest rates leaving many Canadians struggling to pay their mortgage and other bills. This isn’t only happening in hospitality. The Retail Council of Canada says that shoplifting is on the rise. Some grocery stores in Ontario are no longer selling alcohol because of theft. In the U.S., Target says it’s closing nine stores due to an increase in theft, and Whole Foods shuttered its flagship San Francisco store in the spring. In the U.K., some stores are using security tags and dummy jars to curb theft of higher-priced items such as beef, cheese and coffee. But, although both are wrong, there is a difference between stealing a loaf of bread and stealing a round of cocktails, appetizers, mains and dessert.

Ms. Higginson is at a loss to explain these premeditated acts of robbery.

“Is it that people feel entitled to still do the things they could do five years ago, financially? I don’t know.”

People see a rise in menu prices and, if they have no context for the causes, may think that restaurants are raking in profits. But over the past three years, the cost of food, labour and fuel have exploded – well beyond the menu price increases or shrinkflation (i.e. smaller portions) aimed at mitigating theses jumps. Consider the “French fry index,” sales data recently released from restaurant point-of-sale system SpotOn. Between January, 2021, and August, 2023, across the United States, the menu price or French fries has risen an average of 17.5 per cent. Diners are likely to notice that, and possibly resent it. Perhaps even feel that they are owed some free fries. But they are unlikely to be aware that the increased price to them doesn’t come close to making up for higher input costs, in this case fryer oil jumping 36 per cent and russet potatoes a whopping 166 per cent over the same period. Whatever the reason, the restaurateurs I’ve spoken to have seen a rise in diners skipping out on their bills.

“We’ve been in operation since 2005 and I’ve never seen as many as now,” says Sarah Chown, managing partner of the Metropolitain Brasserie in Ottawa. “It used to be they’d have maybe a beer at the bar and then say they were going for a smoke. And not come back. That was the old way.”

Ms. Chown has noticed not just a higher volume and more boldness, but people racking up higher bills.

“They’re starting with a beer, having an appetizer, a main course, dessert, a glass of wine. We’re seeing repeat offenders, too.”

After speaking with other businesses in the neighbourhood, they realized one such person hit up as many as five restaurants in one day. At the Metropolitain, the dashing diner enjoyed lobster thermidor, sweet potato fries and a basque cheesecake, washing it down with a glass of Racine pinot noir, before walking out on the $74 bill (pretax, pretip).

I don’t know how she consumed so much food,” Ms. Chown said.

Shaun Jeffrey, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurants and Foodservice Association, speaks daily with operators. He says he used to hear about dine and dash happening once or twice a month for a restaurant – now it’s occurring once or twice a week. And he says he believes that in Manitoba, where the high severity crime index has increased 14 per cent in the past year (compared with the 4 per cent national rate), the implied threat of violence is being weaponized. People who used to sneak out when no one was looking, now feel bold enough to stroll out, sometimes in large groups, confident that the fear of potential escalated violence will shield them from a manager who, in the old days, might attempt to stop their exit.

According to John Graham Director of Government Relations for the Retail Council of Canada, the Winnipeg Police Service is considering participation in a pilot project that would allow individual retailers and restaurateurs to submit incidents through a digital reporting platform, enabling a police investigator to connect incidents and individuals. The goal would be to help identify the most prolific offenders that should be the primary target of prosecution, but are often not as recognizable because incidents are looked at in isolation. However, the pilot was proposed a year ago, and the WPS would not provide me with an update, other than that the inspector previously involved has retired.

For their part, Restaurants Canada advises operators to maintain a dine-and-dash policy. After the death of Mr. Rahman, they messaged members to remind them:

  • Never physically confront customers attempting to skip out on the bill.
  • Managers are responsible for contacting police.
  • Security cameras should cover sensitive areas to assist the identification of offenders.
  • Employees should never be required to cover unpaid bills.

If the updates to the Employment Standards Act pass, prohibiting employers from deducting theft losses from employees, that last one will be a requirement, not a suggestion. The rest are reasonable. But we live in unreasonable times. What more can be done, before telling restaurants they have to accept this form of theft as a monthly line of cost on their P&L?

Restaurant clientele, unlike most other businesses, are able to enter the premises without an appointment, to consume goods and use services, before being expected to pay. Or to show proof of their ability or intention to pay.

The obvious, if flawed, solution, is to find a way to gather diners’ identification or credit card information before the meal, rather than after. Gas stations have done this – self-serve requires customers to enter a credit card before pumping. Thieves, even the ones acting on impulse, are less likely to steal from a business that already has this information.

Just as obvious is the problem with this strategy: It’s unwelcoming, and anathema to businesses predicated on creating a feeling of making guests feel welcome. Industry veterans don’t want to turn the full-service dining experience into the automated, impersonal efficiency of fast food, asking guests to pay for their meals before they sit down. However, the bill size, and potential loss, escalates the risk of extending trust.

While Ms. Higginson is in favour of some version of this, the vaccine-card era, with its requirement for restaurant employees to become de facto public-health officers (and the inherent conflicts this bred) has left a sour taste in people’s mouths. Instead of the blunt tool of asking customers for ID or credit cards up front, there is likely a tech solution.

As much as technology has intruded between restaurants and their customers in order to extract value for the startup tech world, this is a situation where a software hospitality innovation is not just welcome, but needed.

Fifteen years ago, when online reservation software began to take over that portion of restaurant service, the problem of “no-shows” intensified. Without the human on the other end of the phone, the new system enabled the kind of diner who makes multiple restaurants for a Saturday night, picks one to honour at the last minute, and doesn’t care about the lost revenue they are incurring on the others. Even as some savvy operators began requiring credit cards to book tables, and charging nominal fees for no-shows, the bulk of the industry felt that this was a deal-breaker to the hospitality they were trying to offer, and that diners would be reluctant to share credit card information prepurchase.

Both parts of that argument have been rendered obsolete by a sea change in how we conduct our lives. Digital disruption has shifted our consumer habits massively over the past decade. Most of us share credit card details every day, tacitly or explicitly. Without a second thought, we open apps and websites that require this information. Sometimes we have to enter it, often through an autofill that makes the point of sale seamless. Increasingly, we connect via third-party software that already has our credit card information stored, leaving only a single tap, thumbprint or face scan between our sharing what was once tightly guarded.

Within the bar segment of the hospitality sector, it’s long been common for customers to be asked to pay upfront, or leave their credit card if they want to open a tab (Ms. Chown says this is standard at the Metropolitain when they host cocktail functions). Is that inhospitable? Does it communicate a lack of trust to all the clientele? Or is it a reasonable precaution, easily understood by guests to be a firewall between a business’ need for loss prevention, and the dumb stuff people do when they’ve been drinking?

Ms. Higginson has been in talks with suppliers such as Chase Bank and TouchBistro, about finding assistance through the use of their hand-held payment terminals and POS systems. Whoever figures out a way to help restaurants with this, will have their business.

At a recent dining experience, I scanned a QR code to access the menu, order and pay. The software took our credit cards upfront. So when it was time to pay, we left without needing to wait for a bill. It was a wonderful and efficient experience. When servers came around to bring food, they had time to explain dishes or put a personal touch on the experience because they weren’t spending all their time taking orders. Yes, pandemic QR menus are almost universally disliked, but they offer valuable features. I think there’s space for a hybrid – physical menus that maintain our nostalgia for the 20th century anachronism of reading on printed paper, with QR links that enable everything else to be streamlined. This could include speed and ease of service, as well as the payment convenience and security of taking credit cards upfront. The banks and POS companies, if they can design the software, can also figure out what to do about people who don’t have credit cards.

There’s an old school hospitality persona that takes the mantra “the customer is always right” to a pathological degree – the end of which is an industry that caters to the whims, tastes and temperaments of customers, even putting up with their abuse. From my research and reporting on staffing in hospitality, this philosophy is what has led, in part, to the labour shortages which became endemic in recent years. People don’t want jobs that put them in danger. Employers, if they don’t want to put their staff in harm’s way or make their business prey for crooks, must think beyond their old credo.

I believe there’s a tech solution that helps restaurants prevent dine and dash incidents, without the security state tactics of armed guards at the door asking for our ID. The alternative? There is another family, like Mr. Rahman’s daughter, and wife Shayela Nasrin, who has since reopened The Curry House, but will never be whole again.

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