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How to deal with the dine-and-dash

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Restaurant and Foodservice

This post is by SmartBlog on Restaurants and Restaurant SmartBrief contributor Janet Forgrieve.

A seemingly classy couple made international news this week, complete with grainy still photos from security cameras that caught them before they allegedly faked a pre-dessert smoke break and fled London’s L’Autre Pied without paying their bill of more than $900. It’s a dramatic example of the classic dine-and-dash, a move that likely dates to the earliest less-than-ethical guests at civilization’s first restaurants.

Unlike other situations involving consumers who don’t pay their bills, the dine-and-dash, also called the dine-and-ditch and running the check, rises above the level of civil infraction, since the law figures the dashers ordered and ate the meal knowing full well they didn’t plan to pay. That intention bumps the act into the category of criminal fraud.

Quickservice, fast-casual chains and other concepts that require payment before or when food is served largely avoid this particular type of theft, but fine dining and casual establishments deal with it on a regular basis, and some restaurateurs say dine-and-dash has been on the rise during the economic downturn.

In a case last year, the owner of Buckley’s in Memphis used security-camera footage to shame a couple into returning to pay their $100 tab. Saying he aimed to nip the rising tide of dine-and-dash cases in the bud before they bit too deeply into the restaurant’s bottom line, owner Ken Dick sent 8,000 people an e-mail newsletter that included the photo and a warning to fellow restaurateurs to be on the lookout for the pair. The strategy apparently worked — the scofflaws made good on the check by the end of the day.

Most of the time, dine-and-dash cases don’t warrant news coverage unless there’s a twist. Like the recent incident at an Illinois Buffalo Wild Wings in which a track star-turned-waiter chased down three dashers and clung to their car on a mad dash through city streets. The trio was caught and punished, but law enforcers warned the waiter never to repeat his dangerous feat.

Sometimes, servers are acting in their own self-interest when they chase down check runners. Requiring tipped employees to reimburse the restaurant when guests skip out on the check is a violation of federal labor laws, but late last year Cleveland columnist Connie Schultz documented several cases of eateries taking the unpaid tabs out of workers’ pay. Not only is the practice illegal, Schultz found, but it can sometimes have tragic consequences. Her column cites cases in which restaurant workers in pursuit of payment have been paralyzed and even killed after being hit by the culprits’ getaway cars.

On a more optimistic note, on a blog post last year, scores of restaurant workers shared stories of well-meaning guests who dined and didn’t dash but did discover they had forgotten their wallets. Most of the time, trust and personal integrity won the day.

Did the down economy bring more dine-and-dash cases your way? How do you deal with them?

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