Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Guests Steal Everything from Bars. Including, Yes, Bottles.

Glenn Hilario

Let’s face it: Bars have the coolest stuff—vintage glassware, cool metal straws, menus that verge on high art. It’s enough to make a law-abiding person feel ... larcenous. Especially if that person has thrown back a few drinks.

“People steal whatever is not nailed down,” says Julie Haase, the general manager of Detroit’s Sugar House. “Our menus are stolen more than any other item. Our menu is exhaustive, with 101 classic cocktails, a large spirits selection and decorative pages of signature cocktails all listed. It’s unique and expensive to produce, so I understand the temptation.”

The practice is so common, says Haase, that they haven’t even tried to do anything to curb it. “We’ve stopped guests when we catch them in the act, but sometimes people are just too quick,” she says. “We’ve had our A-frame sidewalk chalkboard stolen. We’ve also had the mirrors and pictures on the walls in the bathrooms stolen during service. We glued the new ones to the wall.”

Specialty items are a popular choice for bar thieves. Rachel Knox, a server at Pok Pok NY in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, says the tiny cups they use for shots of house rice whiskey are constantly stolen. “Admittedly, they’re really cute, but we have to buy new ones all the time,” says Knox. “A semifamous actress and her friends stole a half-dozen of them recently.”

Will Escalante, the bar manager at The Bygone in the Four Seasons hotel in Baltimore, suffers a similar problem. The restaurant and bar’s black and gold coasters customized with the letter “B” are going missing with alarming frequency.

“It’s flattering and it’s free marketing, but it can get pricey for the business too,” he says. They’ve started switching over to napkins for busy weekend shifts when the volume is too high for the bartenders to keep an eye out. The coasters are so popular with bar lifters that Escalante has thought of turning the situation into a profit.

“We’ve seen a growing national trend in restaurants with retail components, so offering unique bar souvenirs as part of a similar program could be a way to mitigate disappearing items,” he says. “That’s if everyone in town doesn’t already own one of our coasters by now.”

Gavin Mosley, a managing partner in New York City’s Den Hospitality—the folks behind Borrachito, The Garret and The Lately—says that even bottles of booze aren’t safe if you’re running a nightclub. Beyond security, cameras and vigilant employees, he recommends bolting to the walls or shelves anything you don’t want to replace. Yet he admits to not having a totally clean past himself: “Having said all that, I’m the culprit of a stolen straw or two, so I get it.”

Haase, too, can be a bit understanding about the impulse. “Sometimes people steal for a souvenir of a special night out—maybe it was a birthday, reunion with an old friend or great date,” she says. “They want that little token to remind them of a fond memory.”

And sometimes there’s humor in it all. “My favorite people are the ones who think they’re stealing but actually aren’t,” she says. “We use tiny clothespins to clip garnish peels onto glassware, and I’ve had many intoxicated guests show me the tiny clip at the door and proudly exclaim ‘I’m stealing this!’ while bolting out the door. We don’t reuse them, so the clips would be tossed anyway, but people just love the thrill of taking something—anything—out the door.”

She would still like people to quit the five-finger discounts, though, because the money spent replacing stolen items takes away from new equipment that could mean a better overall experience for everyone.

“I try to be thoughtful,” says Haase says. “Because the more people steal, the more we’ll see cocktail prices go up to cover the cost of replenishing supplies.”