An eye on spyware

Surveillance technology has gotten reams of negative press in connection with the government and privacy issues. But advancements in surveillance can be a boon for restaurants. The latest equipment is not only effective in preventing crime by thieves and vandals, it is increasingly being used to monitor employees and benefit customers.

Celebrity chef Robert Irvine tells the story of calling his line cooks one day from halfway around the world to ask them why they were taking a break at that particular moment, which seemed like a busy one for the kitchen. The employees couldn’t muster a defense, even though their boss was in another country, because he could see their goldbricking with his own eyes. He had a surveillance system that he could check via his smartphone, a mobile app and a webcam.

To prevent theft and fraud, most restaurants have very basic surveillance systems in place with cameras stationed at entrances and cash registers. These systems, connected to a digital recorder, can snap a close-up or full body shot. But now it’s possible to go much further, providing 24/7 monitoring of staff, guests and thieves through the Internet and mobile apps.

An advanced surveillance system can actually change employee behavior, according to a research paper published last year by three academics and an MIT research scientist. “Cleaning House: The Impact of Information Technology Monitoring on Employee Theft and Productivity” studied the impact of employee monitoring technology at five casual-dining chains. Using a system which employs tracking software to monitor POS transactions and fraud, the restaurants reduced employee theft and increased revenue and profits. The main reason, the researchers found, was that employees changed their unethical behavior once they knew they were being monitored. Plus, servers made more of an effort to upsell the menu and boost the check.

Bread Winners Cafe and Bakery, based in Dallas, is a case in point. Owner Jim Hughes realized that employee theft was a reality at his four units but he didn’t have the resources or time to analyze data and determine the cause. Once the system was activated, “we knew we had an effective theft deterrent. I was shocked when I saw the results, which identified several longtime employees engaging in suspicious activity,” said Hughes on the surveillance company’s website. Integrated high-tech surveillance has increased profits and reduced suspicious behavior across all operations.

Lemmy Cooper, general manager of Red Star Tavern in Portland, Ore., says his system, installed three years ago for $5,000, did help catch a thief. But he finds it more useful for pinpointing employee problems. “We use it to hold our employees accountable for cash handling, theft or drinking on the job,” Cooper says. “They know the system is there and it takes away the temptation to do the wrong thing.”

At what cost?

Surveillance systems range from low- to high-tech with prices to match. But theft and fraud can be costlier. 

  • $3,000– $12,000: the setup cost per location of surveillance equipment
  • 4 percent of restaurant sales: what employees steal, says the National Restaurant Association 


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