To catch a thief

Nov. 4, 2004

As the owner-operator of Big Dave's Pizza in Oscoda, Mich., Dave Ostrander learned the hard way that there are three kinds of employees: those who will never take a penny, those who will occasionally steal a little, and those who will steal you blind at every opportunity.

"We all deal with it," said Ostrander, who sold his store after 30 years in business and became a full-time speaker and consultant to the pizza industry. One of his best-attended seminars is on employee theft. "We're in a cash business, and it's not real difficult to steal. And pizzeria operations generally have fairly lax cash and inventory control policies."

Adding to the problem, the foodservice business by nature holds multiple temptations for serious and petty thieves, according to Jim Laube, a foodservice consultant and speaker whose Website,, dishes up practical advice to operators.

Restaurateurs unknowingly make the pickings easy for thieves, Laube added. They rarely consider an alarm-free back door a risk, or wonder whether the fresh-faced high-schooler making dough in the back would steal from them.

Prevention tips

The best and most obvious solution to theft problems is to avoid hiring thieves, said Ostrander. But he admits it's difficult, if not impossible, to guess whether that person you're interviewing will rip you off.

Calling past employers to do background checks works some, but he said it's always a good idea to ask a former employer if they would hire that worker back. If the answer is no, then keep on looking for another employee. But even that method isn't foolproof.

"A lot of employers

What you can do to reduce theft:

· Conduct background checks on prospective employees.
· Conduct daily audits of food inventory.
· Use a POS system.
· Install surveillance cameras.
· Control the workplace environment through responsible management staff.

are very hesitant to finger an ex-employee," Ostrander said. "They're just glad to get them out of their life and glad to get them off of unemployment so somebody else can pick them up."

Linda Gutowski, owner of Mancino's Pizzas and Grinders in Traverse City, Mich., credits trustworthy management for keeping theft low in her store. "I think we have a better handle on it right now than we've ever handled it because of the management team we have in place. It all starts with the management team."

Laube said that theft prevention can be simplified by conducting daily inventory audits of key food products. Those audits, Laube added, should be done where employees can see the operator in the act of counting.

"That, in and of itself, really has a dramatic psychological impact on your employees because they know that you're counting that stuff," Laube said. "The owner's going to know if there's a shortage."

Computerized point-of-sale systems also are good theft detectors and deterrents. Consultants also suggest the use of surveillance cameras.

"People tend not to steal when Big Brother is looking at them," Ostrander said. "It's a deterrent for crime. It's almost a given nowadays."

Laube recalled one operator who told him that sales increased after he installed a computerized point-of-sale system and surveillance cameras.

"He said it directly correlated with the date that he installed those things (and) probably paid for his security camera in less than six months."

Protect yourself

Reducing theft, the experts say, boils down to employers taking proactive steps to eliminate the possibility for it.

"If management allows a playground atmosphere ... the employees will have a playground existing. And when a playground exists, there are problems," Gutowski said. "When there's proper supervision, then the workplace is healthier and it stays a workplace."

Topics: Crime , Financial Management , POS

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