Why Can’t People Stop Stealing From D.C.’s Restaurants?
Peter Ogburn’s life of crime began with a copper mug stuffed down his pants. The radio producer was drinking a Moscow mule at the bar at Senart’s Oyster and Chop House not long after its 2011 opening when the impulse struck him: He’d always wanted one of the shiny cups but had no idea where to find them. So he unbuttoned his pants. And he took one.
“If you are a restaurateur and you see somebody walking out of the restaurant with a giant bulge in the front of their pants,” Ogburn says, “they’re either having a really good date, or they’re robbing you.”
Since then, Ogburn has accumulated three more mismatched mugs, taken from D.C.’s Boxcar Tavern and other bars in Las Vegas and Charleston, S.C. He regularly busts them out to make Moscow mules for friends. He admits he has a tinge of guilt about it, but he still ranks the thefts low on the scale of bad etiquette and crime. “People that are bad tippers and people that walk out on a bill are the most deplorable people,” Ogburn says. His justification is simple: “I always overtip bartenders, so karmatically, I think it’s all kind of worked out.”
Copper mugs, which are traditionally used for Moscow mules and help keep the vodka, ginger beer, and lime cocktails icy cold, have become a particularly hot target for covetous bar-goers. But they’re not cheap: The mugs can cost anywhere from $15 to $25 each. Pearl Dive Oyster Palace stopped using them because so many were stolen; Bar Pilar lost its entire collection of 50 mugs and doesn’t plan to replace them. Lincoln Restaurant tried requiring drinkers to turn in IDs to use its mugs, but that created a new problem—too many people just forgot their IDs—so the anti-theft measure was quickly dropped. Instead, Lincoln, which has lost about 30 dozen mugs to thieves, stopped engraving the mugs with the restaurant’s name to at least make replacements cheaper.
Copper mugs, forks, paintings, candle holders—it doesn’t matter. Patrons will take just about anything from bars and restaurants. The problem is so rampant that Eater has a recurring feature called “Shit People Steal,” highlighting pinched items ranging from a bulldog sculpture at Bearnaise to bar stools at Poste Moderne Brasserie. But restaurant thieves aren’t just your run-of-the-mill kleptos (though there are surely plenty of those, too). Fueled by some combination of thrill, sentimentalism, and alcohol, people who wouldn’t dream of taking a pack of gum from a 7-Eleven have no qualms about sticking beer glasses in their coat pockets. For some reason, many otherwise-law-abiding citizens don’t consider stealing from bars and restaurants to be stealing at all. And unlike in retail stores, where there are price tags, diners don’t always think about how the costs of their impulse grabs add up for restaurants.
“I would never be able to legitimately shoplift. I think my conscience would just get to me. I would feel terrible,” says 23-year-old Skylar, who stole a dozen curvy Freckled Lemonade glasses from burger chain Red Robin over multiple visits during her college years. “It wasn’t even going to Red Robin because anybody even wanted to,” says Skylar, who asked that her last name not be used. “It just turned into a game.” She and her friends would bring big purses, order a lot of lemonades, and always leave at least some glasses on the table so as not to raise too much suspicion. “It was Red Robin, so it didn’t matter,” she says. “You know in the back they have a billion plates and a billion glasses and a billion of everything.”
Then there are the sentimental thieves, who see their stolen goods as mementos of special occasions. Unlike your neighborhood Target or H&M, restaurants are places where people go to commemorate important milestones. Ron, an attorney who asked that his last name not be used, says he stole a star-shaped napkin holder during his honeymoon dinner at L’Etoile in Martha’s Vineyard. Now, he and his wife use it as a Christmas ornament every year. Author and tour guide Tim Krepp confesses he stole a glass from the old Hawk ‘n’ Dove on its last day of business, which also happened to be his birthday. He also took a set of beer mugs from the now-closed Mr. Henry’s in Foggy Bottom when he was a student at George Washington University and gave them as presents to his family. “This was a classic gathering place. It was important to us,” he says. “So you wanted a touchstone or souvenir of where you spent your time.”
Finally, there are the thieves who just seem too cheap or lazy to stop at CVS: Toilet paper, it turns out, is at the top of most restaurants’ stolen items lists.
Restaurant thieves I spoke to say they assume the items they took didn’t cost a lot, or that the businesses have plenty of replacements. Some justify their actions by saying they’ve spent plenty of money at the place over the years. And for things like glassware, many think bars get all that stuff free from distributors anyway, though that isn’t always the case.
“It really adds up quickly,” says Granville Moore’s owner Teddy Folkman. The Belgian beer restaurant on H Street NE loses about 450 logo glasses to theft every year, which costs about $1,800. “I like to consider it part of my advertising budget,” Folkman says. Stolen toilet paper became so much of a problem there that six months ago, he switched to large rolls mounted on the wall.
Bar Pilar and Cafe Saint-Ex beverage director Owen Thomson says in his previous position overseeing the bar at Range, he’d lose around 30 glass cocktail bottles a week at $2 a pop. One of the drinks at Range also used metal spoon straws, which cost between $20 and $25 for a dozen. “Those got stolen at a rate of 15 a day,” Thomson says. So when it came time to change the cocktail menu, he took off the drink and ditched the spoon straws.
Thomson isn’t sure why, but he agrees people treat restaurant property different than other retail property. “I can’t tell you how many times over the course of my decade bartending that people ask for a strong drink or ‘Can I get a shot for free?’” Thomson says. “You don’t do that in any other business transaction in the world. I wouldn’t just walk into fucking Macy’s and say, ‘How about I take this shirt for free?’”
Many restaurants do build extra inventory into their budgets to account for theft and breakage, but not everything is easily replaceable. At Mari Vanna in Dupont, more than $5,000 worth of antiques have been stolen since the tchotchke-filled Russian restaurant opened a year ago, says general manager Victor Star. Many items came from shops in Russia or elsewhere in Europe. The coin purses that the check arrives in are a popular target. A 50-year-old shaving machine from Moscow and a pink ballet tutu and leotard, which decorated the restrooms, have also been swiped. Security did stop one drunk who tried to walk out with a stool, but most thieves get away. Now, Star says, the restaurant has started to glue down more things so people can’t take them. About every two weeks, he tries to replace as much as possible on eBay.
Most restaurants don’t call the police, but they do occasionally offer rewards, like free dinner or a simple amnesty, if items are returned. And the truth is, unless an item is expensive or big enough, the staff won’t necessarily stop someone caught in the act of petty crime. Rose’s Luxury owner Aaron Silverman says he saw a woman stick silverware down her bra the other day. “What are you gonna do?” he says. “If they like the shit that much, they can have it. I don’t want to ruin their experience. If you call them out for stealing in your restaurant, they’re going to be all weirded out, all hurt, or they’ll get defensive.”
Folkman agrees it’s not always worth confronting a small-time thief. “It’s just part of the business. It’s going to happen. I’d rather have somebody who’s home laughing looking at the glass, enjoying it and smiling about it rather than feeling ‘Oh I’m not going to go back there because they harassed me for taking a glass.’”
If it’s something small, Thomson says he will give a look and say “Really, dude?”, at which point the person will be shamed out of their potential theft. “It’s not that much different than catching someone sticking their hand in the garnish tray and treating it like a salad buffet.”
Perhaps that lack of consequences makes thieves more brazen. Ogburn didn’t use the down-the-pants method to assemble his entire collection: Confidence can go a long way, too. He’s found that if he just takes a mug and walks out like it’s his, it’s rare that anyone will actually say anything.
Ultimately, that story—“Hey, you know how I got this mug?”—is part of the appeal of the stolen bar goods. Ogburn once received a copper mug the above-board way, as a Christmas gift. “You know what? It kind of sucks,” he says. “There’s no patina. It’s this boring sterile thing. And I kind of like having one that’s beat up and served to a bunch of drunks before…Plus, I like the fact that I just took it.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery