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How to handle employee theft in restaurants

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The restaurant I work at has a problem with servers failing to tell management about comping alcoholic beverages they say guests “didn’t like” until the end of the night, when guests are long gone. We also have a problem with servers drinking at work. As a new manager, how do I best deal with this?

– Terri, Manager, Chip’s, Texas


These two problems are related, and the bottom line is that your employees are managing the management in this operation, rather than vice versa.

In a functional and properly operating restaurant, you would empower servers and bartenders to administer their own comps and voids, up to a specified limit, and could be reasonably sure that when drinks are taken off a check, it is because there was a real problem rather than employee theft. 

What seems to be happening is you have three problems with the culture of your organization that allow theft to be happening rampantly:
1.    You allow employees to comp or void drinks without manager approval.
2.    You allow drinks that are comped or voided (for example a mispour) to be drunk by the employees.
3.    You allow employees to drink at work.

These problems work together to the point that what would be a severe policy infraction at another workplace (drinking on the job, stealing inventory)—with correspondingly serious consequences—are seen as a little joke at yours. 

My advice is to right this situation through a massive culture change and a united effort among all management to be clear about the policies, providing training and updating the employee handbook. It will be cumbersome at first and will meet resistance, but the employees who resist these changes will not be your ideal employees anyway. I would recommend you start by instituting (or announcing that you’ll be strictly enforcing) the following policies:
1.    Comps and voids need manager approval. This will also help you identify systemic problems and improve guest relations. For example, maybe a beer has an off flavor or a cocktail is indeed unappealing.
2.    Rejected food and beverage items, even if they are not yet served to the guest, cannot be consumed by employees.
3.    No drinking at work.

I think over time, after the initial pain, you will see an improved culture. Once your staff earns your trust, you can loosen the reins, empowering them to comp drinks again, for example.

Finally, differentiate between comps and voids to get a better handle on your costs and revenue. For example, a void might be a drink accidentally rung in as a double when the guest requests a single. It can be voided and properly rung in at no cost to the operation. A comp would be a drink made in error or later rejected by the guest—it has a liquor cost associated with it. 

More on manager comps and false voiding here

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