By Simone Linnea Kaplan

At first, the staff at Vivere were bewildered: how could a sizable vase full of tall, delicate flowers waltz out of the restaurant without anyone noticing? After the third time that the flowers from the women’s room went missing, the staff got suspicious. Once they realized the flowers were being snitched by some of the establishment’s well-to-do customers, suspicion turned to indignation.

“To get out of the restaurant, you have to walk by a number of staff members,” says Gina Capitanini, co-owner of Vivere. “These are not little bud vases we’re talking about here. They’re substantial arrangements. We’re now very wary of people with shopping bags that go directly to the ladies’ room.”

Capitanini has seen more than just flowers walk out the door. Customers sometimes take the silverware, she says. And once, during a large wedding party, a guest tried to leave with a bottle of Barolo wine under his coat.

“We explained to him that we’d have to charge the bride’s parents for the wine if he kept walking,” she recalls. “He gave it back. He’d had a bit too much wine himself.”

Capitanini isn’t the only Chicago restaurant owner to see customers take off with more than the food in their stomachs. From the vaunted elegance of the Pump Room to the Creole atmosphere of Heaven on Seven, patrons politely request the check but keep silent when it comes to the objects that have found their way into purses or coat pockets.

At Morton’s, the elaborate pewter table lamps shaped like pigs disappear most often, says Raki Mehra, the general manager. Morton’s sells the lamps for $75, but it appears the adrenaline high of theft is becoming almost as popular as the restaurant’s cuisine.

“They say they take them for fun, or for a souvenir of their meal,” Mehra says. “But the lamps cost us a lot of money and we lose about four of them a month. It adds up.”

Bistro 110 decorated its eastern wall with an eclectic display of unusual hats on vinelike wooden racks. Each peg once held a hat, but now there are almost as many empty pegs as hats. Staff members say it’s difficult to tell when customers leave with a hat, especially during the winter. They are more concerned with the copper salt-and-pepper shakers that disappear off the tables at a rate of ten sets a week.

Many restaurants try to make their dining rooms into womblike, intimate spaces where customers feel pampered by the attentive service, good food, and cozy atmosphere. Some owners say they wonder whether they’ve created a perfect place for patrons to feel comfortable creating what, in the restaurant industry, is called “shrinkage.” Many feel betrayed when a customer violates what they see as an extension of their home.

“To me, I’m unlocking the front door and you’re coming into my home,” says Susan Gayford, co-owner of the Chicago Chop House. “I try to give guests the best service, the best food, and then they steal from me.”

Gayford has watched patrons rip photographs of celebrities dining at the restaurant off the wall, leaving holes that require professional attention to repair. But for her, the damage isn’t just to the walls. “People don’t seem to have the same respect they used to have for people’s possessions,” she says. “People who take things have no respect for that business. They don’t understand that there’s a profit margin, that we have employees who are working to make a living. And it’s not people of lower income who are stealing. This place has a pretty hefty tab, so you have people who could afford to buy these things who are stealing them for kicks.”

According to Will Cupchik, a psychologist and author of Why Honest People Shoplift or Commit Other Acts of Theft, patrons steal from restaurants for a number of reasons. The welcoming atmosphere and attentive service found at restaurants, he says, create a perfect place for customers to express frustration with their day-to-day lives.

“People who are normally honest and straightforward steal because of a perceived loss in their lives,” he says. “The loss can be actual or anticipated, and people think it’s unfair. So they act out in order to compensate themselves on a deeper level, kind of like a little kid taking revenge. People tell themselves that they’re stealing for the thrill, but they’re never aware of the real reason for what they’re doing. Also, people have an internal sense of what’s fair. If they think the restaurant charged too much for a meal, they may think ‘So what if I take a fork?'”

Sometimes, Cupchik says, people steal as a reaction to stress in their lives, because of problems with authority, or as an act of rebellion. For the wealthy, stealing can be a way of rebelling against their usual standard of living.

“People who live according to certain rules and high standards often want to violate those very standards,” he explains. “They can get tired of living up to rules. A lot of the items taken are nuisance items–they certainly don’t need them. For those with high-paying jobs that impart a lot of responsibility, a restaurant is an easy place to strike back.”

For Fariborz Rouchi, general manager of the Pump Room, it’s impossible to know why his wealthy and otherwise well-mannered clients take items they would have no trouble affording on their own. He says he and his staff must keep their eyes open at all times, and even that isn’t always enough. Patrons take the signature celebrity photos that cover the Pump Room’s walls, the leather-bound wine lists, and especially the blue-and-white bone-china show plates embossed with the Pump Room logo that anchor each place setting.

“It happens all the time,” Rouchi says. “Since the beginning of the year, we’ve lost 12 to 14 wine lists that cost $90 each. Last year we lost close to 200, so we changed the format of the wine list to a larger book that’s harder to take, and it’s been better. We’d be happy to give customers a copy of the list but the books are heavy leather-bound books that cost a lot of money.”

Patrons tend to be very sneaky when it comes to the show plates, Rouchi says. The staff always removes the plates, which cost $120 each, from the table once people have ordered their meal. Some customers will ask them to leave the plate, and that’s when the staff knows to keep an eye out.

“A month ago, we had a table of four, two ladies and two gentlemen. One of the ladies didn’t let us remove the show plate,” he recalls. “So we kept watching her and when I came back later in the meal, the plate was not there, and she had a very big purse. So I waited and waited and when her husband came up to pay, I put the $120 on the bill. I confronted him about it and he denied it at first, but when I told him we knew, he got quiet, went back to the table, and came back with the plate.”

The celebrity photos, however, are another story. The pictures are nailed to the wall and copies are for sale, but that doesn’t stop patrons from taking the ones they want.

“Someone really has to go to a lot of trouble to get the photos,” Rouchi says. “We’ve lost nine so far this year. They’re not even signed. I guess it’s not even the object itself but the thrill of stealing it, of taking it off the wall.”

If you ask restaurant owners why they think patrons steal, many will say that customers want a memento, a souvenir of their evening out. Anything from a napkin to a matchbook can serve this purpose, and the most popular items are those printed with the eatery’s name.

“Anything with a logo or face will walk out the door,” says Grant DePorter, managing partner of Harry Caray’s. “We try not to put the logo on anything.”

As if to make a point, Harry Caray’s patrons regularly steal the one logo-printed item in the place: the check presenters.

“We go through a couple hundred of those every few months,” DePorter says. “Luckily, the credit card companies provide them free of charge, so it doesn’t cost us anything.”

Gibson’s Steakhouse used to carry martini glasses printed with their logo, but they were stolen so often that the restaurant stopped carrying them, says John Colletti, the general manager.

According to Cupchik, taking things printed with a logo is an almost instinctual action that isn’t difficult to understand.

“In our society, we are trained to pay attention to logos,” he says. “We are programmed to react to brand names. That’s why people buy Nike shoes–they like the recognition factor, the name-brand factor.”

Some restaurants try to use the power of logos to their advantage. When Spago first opened in 1996, they carried ashtrays printed with the Spago name on tables around the bar. Within the first year, they had all vanished, says general manager Amanda Larsen-Puck.

“People would stuff them in their purse,” she says. “Then we’d go to our friends’ houses and they’d have the ashtrays sitting out on their coffee tables. It ended up being a promotional item.”

At Heaven on Seven, owner Jimmy Bannos knows his customers steal the bottles of hot sauce that are clustered on each table. He knows they take the extralarge hurricane glasses too: he’s caught women trying to sneak them out the door under their dresses. Though he doesn’t like the stealing, he tries to see the silver lining.

“It’s good advertising,” Bannos says. “My picture is on all of the hot sauce bottles. Even if they don’t use the sauce, they’ll look at the bottle and maybe they’ll come back to eat.”

Bannos says he loses anywhere between 25 and 100 bottles of hot sauce and eight to ten hurricane glasses a week. Each item costs him $4, which adds up to thousands of dollars.

“I know we’re getting hit and I know it’s bad,” he says. “We’re trying to tighten up as much as we can, but there’s not much you can do without keeping people from coming to the restaurant. You have to look at the bright side, which is the free advertising.”

At Gibson’s the hot items are the steak knives. At the end of the night, Colletti says, several are always missing, though the restaurant sells knives printed with the Gibson’s logo for $9.

“People want a memento of the place they’ve been,” Colletti says. “They believe it’s a part of our doing business. And sometimes you have to take it as a part of the business, which is a shame.”

From a psychological point of view, patrons take items as mementos because the sight of them brings back the physical and emotional feelings from the time they were taken, according to Cupchik. When people look at the items, “the name of the restaurant will trigger a mental image of the experience, a physiological reaction such as relaxation, an emotional response in connection to the name of the place,” he says.

At Harry Caray’s, DePorter sees it another way. His customers are encouraged to visit the restaurant souvenir shop, which sells novelty items printed with the Harry Caray logo. Still, they continue to take pictures off the wall, though DePorter says a lot of them replace the stolen photos with pictures of themselves.

“We seem to have an equal flow of pictures leaving and pictures coming in,” he says. “People want to leave their own mark. Everyone wants a piece of something. If they have a special memory, they want something to remember it by.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jo Machado.