Food fraudsters and tableware thieves target city restaurants
- Credit: Archant/Getty
Restaurant bosses in the city are pleading with punters to "give them a break" after a spate of thefts and dine and dash incidents.
Aggression and claims of glass in their meals are among the tactics used by customers who leave without paying the bill.
And, hospitality bosses added, a small minority of customers are treating staff more disrespectfully than prior to the pandemic.
New figures from Norfolk Constabulary show that 401 incidents of leaving without paying were reported in 2020/21.
This was down from the year before - with 713 incidents reported - however given lockdowns towards the end of last year, and the start of this year, many establishments were not even open for service.
Despite this, the rate of people being charged for these offences has fallen.
In years prior the charge and summons rate was anywhere up to 19pc of cases reported, however in the past year this has fallen to just 4pc.
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Stephen Hutton, the owner of Middleton's Steakhouse and Grill in Norwich, said: "We have seen an increase of dine and dashers in recent months - perhaps one or two tables a week across our ten sites.
"It loses us maybe £400 or £500 across the business - people tend to order the high-price ticket items like lobster and fillet steak, as well as alcohol."
He went on: "There are tactics we see them using. A lot of the time we have people claiming they find glass in their food and then in the chaos that ensues they try and leave.
"A lot of the time they also get very aggressive in the blink of an eye. We have had an issue recently where someone threatened a member of staff with a steak knife.
"All I can do as an owner is keep my staff and customers safe and have procedures in place to ensure that, because that's the most important thing."
On why he thinks this behaviour is making a comeback he said: "I think people know hospitality has had such an awful time and think they can get away with it, because they know we're too desperate to turn people away. I think we're also targeted because we have more covers, you wouldn't get away with it in a smaller place."
A place like Benedicts in St Benedicts Street, with chef Richard Bainbridge saying he had been "very lucky" not to see any of this behaviour, though he added a "small minority" of customers were behaving impolitely.
He said: "We've not had any dine and dashers - we don't really see that with our clientele - but we do get people stealing things like hand sanitiser, soaps from the bathrooms, air fresheners. We've also seen cutlery go, the dishes we used to present our bills in.
"We've had people sitting outside so we give them blankets to make them more comfortable - we've found people take those. It doesn't cost us much but it is a shame.
"I also think that a very small portion of our customers are less tolerant than they were before or during the pandemic. There's staff shortages across the industry and we have found that people are less receptive to the fact that we're still struggling.
"Having said that the vast, vast majority are very understanding and reasonable."
Down the road at Farmyard, owner Hannah Springham said that dine and dashers weren't an issue - but that no shows are.
She explained: "We've been really lucky. We've heard that the industry has been seeing issues with it, what we have had much more of is people forgetting to cancel tables.
"In terms of customers we've also been lucky. I imagine people are probably frustrated that they can't be abroad and that's why they're behaving in this inappropriate manner."
She was echoed by Rob Williamson, general manager of The White Horse at Brancaster, who experienced a dine and dash table just this week.
He said: "We were busy in the Marsh Bar and we had a table in for drinks and nibbles. They were there one minute, gone the next.
"Sometimes people forget but the always come back, apologise and pay and it's an honest mistake. This table was sat in a spot with no CCTV, and they haven't got in touch."
What are the consequences for dine and dashers?
Julie Gowland, legal director and head of licensing in Birketts’ regulatory and corporate defence team, explains what the fallout for food fraudsters can be: "If someone deliberately leaves without paying for their meal etc. then that can be a type of theft or making off without payment and can be reported to the police.
"The difficulty that many establishments then face is one of evidence in support of any prosecution; often the restaurant won’t know who the person who has made of is but clear CCTV can help provide evidence in support. If there is evidence to support a police investigation and a realistic prospect of conviction a prosecution should follow, subject of course to any out of court disposal being relevant e.g. a conditional caution being issued.
"The more common scenario is when someone dines and then refuses to pay for their meal claiming that the food was of poor quality etc. This is a more complex situation as it is very difficult to show that the diner had no intention of paying and demonstrating dishonesty, which is required for a complaint of theft/making off without payment, on the part of the diner is often impossible.
"These matters often become more civil complaints and the cost of the restaurant in seeking to recoup costs can outweigh the costs involved in the meal."