A pair of local waiters is BLOWING THE COVER on tricks that a restaurant employee might use to boost take home pay. But WHO'S SCAMMING WHOM?
"If I were to use these yuppies in a scam," says R. Chip DeGlinkta as he eyes a table of six professionally dressed women sitting across the restaurant, "I might pad the check there."
The women look relaxed, but on the job. They could be a group of co-workers celebrating a successful sale or conventioneers expensing a meal between meetings. Would they notice a few extra iced teas added to their tab?
"If they decide to pay separate, that's good, too," DeGlinkta says. "I'll split up the checks and recycle items from different checks."
We're at an upscale restaurant on Bourbon Street. Waiters, dressed in pressed white shirts, guide tourists through menus of fried appetizers and "not too spicy" grilled fish. DeGlinkta has brought me here for a master class in the art of restaurant scamming.
Our waiter, whose nametag reads "Sam" (his name has been changed for this article), interrupts our lesson to take our drink order. Sam exudes a natural balance of friendliness and formality that probably took decades to perfect. He disappears into a corner of the restaurant to gather our drinks.
"They've got a team waiting system here. That guy is the headwaiter," says DeGlinkta. "One of the guys, either the back waiter or the headwaiter, handles the money, typically. If anyone is involved in anything, there are two possible people. It could be the manager. We could have a dirty manager on the floor. Or we could have a waiter that could be in cahoots with any line of people. It could be a cook or the bartender. If you're working in a place that's really wired, you could even have a hostess seat you at a table that fits the profile of a cash player. A hillbilly type, for instance, would be less likely to pay with a credit card than you or I. That's the organized-crime quality of the whole thing."
DeGlinkta, in his mid-30s and dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks, doesn't appear unusual -- he looks like an average, off-duty waiter having a nice lunch before the evening shift. But when he starts unraveling the complexity of restaurant scams, he slightly bounces in his seat with excitement. "I've see a lot things over the years," he says. "I've always been observant. I've always liked systems of crime."
He was born outside Boston and ended up in New Orleans 10 years ago "out of boredom." Along the way, he worked a series of jobs that seem to fall in the gray area between illicit and legal. "I did a lot of positions where there was a lot of shady stuff going on, to be honest," he says. He is coy about the details, but does admit to involvement in a California toner scam, in which a friendly scam artist dupes an office into ordering vastly overpriced photocopier toner. "I had the privilege of working with some of the best in the business out there," he says.
Wherever he went, DeGlinkta often moonlighted as a waiter and bartender, earning extra cash and learning what can happen when the restaurant owner isn't looking. These jobs led him to his first book. With Peter Francis, another former Bourbon Street waiter, he compiled his observations into a new how-to manual for budding thieves titled How to Burn Down the House: The Infamous Waiter and Bartender's Scam Bible. This weekend, DeGlinkta and Francis will read excerpts at Borders in Metairie. There, they will offer first-hand lessons in the arts of scamming.
"This is an admiring exposé," DeGlinkta says. "It's in no way a confessional."
SAM HAS NOW REAPPEARED to fill our table with a large platter of deep-fried oysters. I swipe an oyster and listen as DeGlinkta uses the action around us to illustrate a few lessons in the ways of dishonest bartenders and waiters.
Lesson No. 1: Get the customer to pay cash. The management closely accounts for credit card receipts and customers notice overcharges on their monthly Visa statements, but a pile of twenties can be an invitation for shady employees to add a few extra dollars to their wallets. A bartender, for example, might have smuggled in a cheap bottle of booze with plans to sell from his own private inventory without an increase in the nightly liquor costs to the house. If the customers don't pay in cash, the bartender can never pocket that extra money. Perhaps a waitress is working a breakfast buffet, where 90 percent of the tables order two buffets and two coffees. She might try to reuse a ticket from an earlier table, giving the manager one receipt while stealing the tab from the second table. Without a cash payment, she can't get that money into her purse.
When a scam has been put in motion, what does the bartender or waitress do if the guest pulls out a credit card and threatens to undermine the whole operation? DeGlinkta recommends a simple ruse called "Putting Them on Ice."
"What you do is you say, I'll take your credit, but credit cards have been going through slow today. It might be 10 to 15 minutes, sir. Would cash be more convenient for you?' You're pushing for the cash."
If the customer insists on paying with a credit card, DeGlinkta has a back-up plan. "You take his credit card and you take off for a little while. You go and you make a few swipes. Make the guy wait. Twiddle his thumbs. Piss him off. Push him to the very edge. Usually the whole party will dummy up with twenties. It's a great one. It's an example of intimidating the customer by drama."
Lesson No. 2: Small items can produce big profits. The kitchen requires a duplicate ticket to prepare appetizers and entrees, so a waiter would need an accomplice in the kitchen to sell a customer a meal and pocket the cash. Items that waiters prepare themselves, the "self-service" items, offer opportunities for theft.
"There's lots of money in iced tea," DeGlinkta says. "There's tons of money in salads. For instance, this guy Sam might make the salads himself. There might be a salad station back there. He probably gets his own iced tea. He can open up his own little French Market in here just by pushing items that he doesn't have to ring in."
At a less sophisticated restaurant, a waiter might write up a ticket for the management that only includes the items from the kitchen, give the table a verbal total for the full bill including the self-service items, and skim the difference as an extra-fat tip. DeGlinkta claims that even computerized systems don't prevent the theft of self-service items, because the high-tech system's ability to split the ticket of a single table also allows an unscrupulous waiter to shift items from one ticket to another.
Bartenders who are out to cheat a restaurant or bar already have the benefit of receiving many cash payments. Although the inventory of liquor is normally measured against the receipts collected, according to DeGlinkta "draft beers are hard to trace." The dirty bartender might sell a few pints of Abita without ringing in the beers, or she could give a good customer one "on the house" in the hopes of getting part of the cost of the beer back as an extra large tip. Many bars consider both practices to be theft.
Lesson No. 3: Know what role to play. Like most scam artists, dirty bartenders and waiters rely on the goodwill of other people. We assume that mistakes are honest, rather than ploys to cheat us. With small amounts of money, we'd rather let it slide than make a scene. And if a few items don't appear on the check, we're likely to count ourselves lucky, pay quickly and slip out of the restaurant before anyone notices our freebie, never thinking that our waiter's "oversight" may have actually been one piece in an elaborate scheme to rip off the restaurant.
In the right situation, a corrupt bartender or waiter can use subtle intimidation to carry out a scam. A bartender, for example, fails to ring up a gin and tonic, and then he hopes to give the customer a verbal total and transfer the entire tab into his tip jar at the end of the night. When a customer demands a written receipt, bartenders can bully a customer into doing things their way. "If the guy says, I want a receipt,' the bartender can say, I'm busy. If you want a receipt, wait 20 minutes.' You don't have to be super polite to people as a bartender," DeGlinkta says.
If an unscrupulous waiter has easy access to self-service salads and wants to steal the proceeds, he might prey on the insecurities of customers. "He could say, The Caesar salad is really good if you want to eat light.' Put someone on the spot. Say it to a chubby person," DeGlinkta says. "Probably a lot of great scammers in history got their start on the restaurant floor. You're intimidating people into buying stuff."
THE SCAM BIBLE IS NOT MUCH BIGGER than the notepad waiters carry in their aprons. On the cover, a bright red devil holds a plate of cocktails in one hand and clutches a wad of cash in the other. Inside, DeGlinkta and Francis lay out for bartenders and waiters a wealth of information on scams with step-by-step instructions and hints on how to cover their tracks if they get busted.
In a tone like the come-ons of a carnival barker, the authors introduce their main characters: the Customer, the Manager and the Waiter. The Customer is "often kind and unselfish, at times cruel and even parsimonious. At one time or another we have all eaten out, and in doing so, taken a stab at this leading role. Let's give ourselves a big round of applause!" The manager plays the role of arch-villain in this comedy, and the authors address him with a series of slurs: "FloorDick," "The Mope" and "Schmoo." The hero, of course, is the dirty waiter, known as "the Pump Handle for his uncanny ability to quickly and quietly erect an ever-pumping money siphon of scam wherever he goes." In one episode after another, the clever Pump Handle skims profits from the restaurant, coolly talks his way out of trouble when caught, and even manages to fool his bosses into naming him Employee of the Month.
"To give a clear portrait, we couldn't just show the scams," DeGlinkta says. "We had to show the personalities of the people involved, the atmosphere, the motivations, the rationalization, the sheer disdain that a cynical, angry employee has."
Promethean Books, the fledgling local publisher of the Scam Bible, has pinned its survival on the book. "We needed a flagship project that hit on all the cylinders of publishing as we understood it: how-to, self-help and dieting. OK, we left dieting out, but those are the big three," says John Collins, one of the founders of Promethean Books. "So it's kind of a parody of the how-to genre. It's highly provocative, but not obscene. It offends the sensitivities of some people, and other people it makes extremely happy. It is such a provocative subject, especially in a restaurant town like this."On advice of a lawyer friend, Collins and Promethean Books co-founder Nigel Pickhardt offered restaurant owners and managers the chance to purchase the Scam Bible before it was released to the public. "We sent it to every restaurant association in the country, plus Guam and the Virgin Islands," Collins says. Several restaurants both in New Orleans and around the country purchased copies. Bill Marvin, an industry consultant known as the "Restaurant Doctor," ordered two cases to sell through his weekly newsletter.
Are the authors selling out their fellow scam artists who are still taking orders and carrying trays on Bourbon Street and elsewhere? DeGlinkta defends the book and its marketing. "The restaurant manager and the waiter both get the book at the same time," he says. "The waiter starts stealing; the manager starts preventing, using the book as a handbook. A waiter is being rejuvenated by the book. Everyday he's making money. For him it's no effort. He's learning more, he becomes good. The manager has to learn all the scams. He doesn't get to practice them on a regular basis, so he forgets them. He has to constantly be on the alert. The waiter is rejuvenated, and the manager expends energy."
Tom Weatherly, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, says he hasn't read Scam Bible, but he's gone to Promethean's Web site to learn about it. "You're not going to make a whole lot of money selling that book to managers," he says. "When you've been in our industry for awhile, you should know most of the basics that they are talking about. I think what they're wanting to do is make a whole lot of money selling it to gullible people who think they can pull that stuff over on managers."
Marvin, who has read the book, disagrees. "This is the book everyone hoped no one would ever write," he says. "As long as the information is out there, managers better get a hold of it to at least make sure they've got their systems in place."
For his part, Pickhardt is up front about Promethean's marketing strategy. "As a publisher, having learned from past experience that money doesn't grow on trees, we're willing to sell it to anybody," he says.
AFTER READING THE SCAM BIBLE AND NOW TALKING with DeGlinkta, I find myself becoming increasingly suspicious of everyone around me. If a bartender gives me an extra round, is it a friendly gesture or is he stealing a drink from his boss in the hopes that I will make up the difference in his tip? When a waitress places our ticket face down on the table with a handwritten total and a smiley face on the back, is she hoping that I won't turn it over and notice that a gratuity has already been added? The first sip of that frozen daiquiri might pack a punch, but has the bartender dribbled a little alcohol into the straw to disguise the fact that the rest of the glass barely has a drop of rum?
Eating at a restaurant, like going to the theater, requires that we sometimes suspend our disbelief. Do I want to know what goes on behind the curtain? "Behind this clean facade, there is human nature," DeGlinkta says. "There's everything. It's Bourbon Street. There are alcoholics, drug addicts, speed freaks, cokeheads, heroin addicts. It's all a fake. It's all a facade. Behind these white shirts, a lot of these people can probably barely afford their white shirts."
Is there really a war raging between management and staff, with waiters and bartenders trying to rob both their bosses and me? Or is DeGlinkta a huckster painting the restaurant industry in the worst possible light to sell his book? And how much scamming is there, anyway?
"Unfortunately, it's too prevalent," says the Louisiana Restaurant Association's Tom Weatherly. "Restaurants have all the disadvantages of every small business and then plus some. We're a very labor-intensive industry; we handle a lot of cash, a lot of credit card charges. The biggest bulk of the problem is from employees," he says.
Mel Ziegler is president of the Bourbon Street Merchants Association and owns several French Quarter restaurants. "Waiters and bartenders are an unbelievable breed," he says. "A waiter or bartender can really f--k over a place." He practices constant vigilance in his establishments. "You have to think like a thief and then think like a better thief, because once you close that one loophole they're going to open up another."
Neither the Louisiana Restaurant Association nor the New Orleans Police Department specifically tracks the amount of employee theft in New Orleans restaurants. A nationwide industry survey conducted in 1999 found that the average restaurant employee stole $218 each year. Clearly, some employees steal far more than the average, while others wouldn't even consider taking money. Joseph Thompson, President of the liquor control and theft prevention company Stock-Taker, wrote in an industry newsletter that in his experience, 25 percent of bartenders are honest, 50 percent would steal if given the opportunity, and 25 percent are crooked from the moment they walk in the door.
"Stealing is pretty much the same in all restaurants and at some point or another everybody has been involved, from dishwashers to owners," says Josué Vázquez-Cruz, the editor of the Web site NOLAWaiters.com and a waiter himself with 15 years of experience. "After four months in the industry you realize what kind of environment you're in. It's either too easy to do it, or people learn how to do it without getting caught."
When caught scamming or stealing, bartenders and waiters are often fired but rarely prosecuted. "A lot of times a restaurateur looks at the damages of what's been done, if it's to them, and just decides it's not worth pursuing (with the police)," says Weatherly. "If you terminate them for theft, then you have to be able to prove that they've actually stolen in a court of law. Sometimes it's just not worth gathering the evidence."
Weatherly cautions, though, restaurant owners have zero tolerance for employees who steal from customers. "Restaurants are very protective of their customers," he says. "They can't afford to get the reputation with customers that they're going to be stolen from by a member of the staff when they enter that establishment."
Vázquez-Cruz says that the environment created by management influences the staff's behavior. "I'm working in a restaurant now where I feel very comfortable. They do sit down and they listen, there's a lot of communication between employees and waiters. I've worked in other places where the waiter is supposed to shut up and do whatever you are told."
"It's need and opportunity," says Marvin. "You can't do anything about the need, but the best thing that owners can do is create the kind of environment where people don't want to do that."
AS DEGLINKTA AND I FINISH OUR COFFEE, Sam brings the check. For my final lesson, DeGlinkta dissects the computer ticket. He teaches me how to spot a potential scam by checking the time printed on the ticket and noting if the waiter has fabricated a counterfeit bill using the computer's ability to split tickets.
We had ordered an appetizer, a few drinks and two lunch specials, which includes a choice of salad or soup. I notice that DeGlinkta's salad had been rung in as $0.00, just as it should be. My soup of the day, though, appeared fully priced at $6. Probably just an innocent mistake.
"It's easy to make that slip-up, or it's easy to use that slip-up to your advantage," DeGlinkta says.
When I turn my head, the back waiter grabs the ticket and my credit card before I can even ask about the error. Minutes later, Sam returns with the credit card slip for me to sign. It's already calculated, I think. I don't want to make a scene. It's only a few dollars. I wonder, though, if that is exactly what Sam wants me to think. Did he charge me a little extra to pad his tip? Did I just get scammed?