This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2015.
I can still see myself running across the market square in Kortrijk, with my apron tied around my waist and my work wallet rattling with all of its coins. Customers who dine and dash are simply the worst. As satisfying as it can be to chase after these people like some special agent—even grabbing them and forcing them to pay their check—they're still every restaurant's worst nightmare.
Recent research from Belgian food and beverage retail association NSZ shows that the amount of people who dine and dash has increased by a whopping 24 percent in the past year. More and more freeloaders walk into a restaurant, fill their bellies with the finest food and drinks, and then sneak out without paying their bill. Restaurants and bars try to combat this by asking customers to pay up front or installing surveillance cameras. But catching them is still not easy, especially because the hospitality thieves are getting smarter and sneakier as time goes on.
I have the right to call them thieves: the money they neglect to pay has to come out of someone else's wallet. Often, it's the business' cash register—or worse, out of the server's paycheck. Many of these criminals don't seem to realize that, or they simply don't care.
NSZ is now urging restaurants in Belgium to go to the police every time they have to deal with someone who decides to dine and dash, but only 18 percent of all businesses actually oblige. Maybe it's too much of a hassle, or perhaps restaurant owners think it won't make much of a difference. A third option: restaurants have their own, creative ways of dealing with freeloaders.
I spent a day biking around Amsterdam and asked employees in more than 20 different restaurants how they take on the challenge of non-paying customers. The answers I got varied from "it rarely happens" to "we deal with it all the time" and "I wish those god-awful people would go straight to hell." But in all cases, it turns out, calling the police is about the last thing any of the restaurant owners would do. They'd rather take care of the issue themselves.
'I asked him for his shoes and threw them into the canal.'
Where: Bo Cinq, Prinsengracht
Who: Fred, former manager
Bill: 135 euros
Caught the customer: Yes
What happened: It was the second time this particular guy dined with us. He sat his stupid ass down at the same table he ran from last time. I recognized him, but couldn't immediately recall from where. It wasn't until a server commented on the impeccable manners of the guest at table number 10 that I realized who he was. That deplorable specimen, a seemingly middle-class guy, had dined and dashed with us before. His routine was very well-rehearsed. He came in, made friends with all the servers on staff, and then ordered a bottle of wine and two glasses—supposedly because he was waiting for a friend—and also ordered food for two. I was planning on catching him in the act this time and told the servers to keep an eye on him. We were all carrying walkie-talkies, so when the guy got up and made his way to the exit, I was warned and made sure I stood by the door with the check in hand. "This is the second time, sir," I told him. "It's time to pay." The intensity of the moment was magnified by a thunderstorm raging outside. The customer told me he didn't have any money on him, but that I was more than welcome to follow him to his car. I walked with him in my T-shirt, which was soaked through within seconds. On the way to his car we stopped at a bar, where a friend of him was going to give him money, he said. The bar had two exits and before I knew it, the guy tried to escape. I started yelling at him and asked if he had ever intended to pay the bill. He apologized a few times, but that wasn't enough for me. I asked him for his shoes and threw them into the canal while he was standing there watching. Asshole.
'I didn't trust them for a second.'
Where: Café Schiller, Rembrandtplein
Who: Mees, former manager
Bill: More than 100 euros
Caught the customers: Yes
What happened: Schiller is somewhat of a second home to many writers. On a busy Thursday night about three years ago, a group of writers were sitting on the patio outside, their table filled with glasses of beer, oysters, and cheese plates. Little by little, the group started to dissipate. When only a few people were left, I brought them the check. The customers insisted that their editor, who was at that point hanging out elsewhere in the restaurant, would pay the bill. He refused. "They drank for free at the book launch. This part of the evening isn't my responsibility," he said. When the authors told my coworkers that they didn't have any cash on them and would go a nearby ATM to take some out, I didn't trust them for a second. My instincts proved to be spot-on: When I went to take a look outside I saw them dragging their lumpy, intoxicated bodies across the square with their half-empty beers still in hand. I ran after them and was tapped on the shoulder by the bouncer at Smokey, the coffee shop next door. "I'll get them for you," he assured me. He was a giant of a man, and in what seemed like only a few large steps he was able to catch the customers and drag them to the ATM. Nobody said a word. I took the money from them and went back to the bar. We thanked the bouncer by treating him to a huge plate of bar snacks. It wasn't the last time I saw those writers at Schiller, but from then on I always insisted at they pay upfront. I didn't really feel like taking revenge, but mostly tried to ignore the incident in a professional manner.
'He just stared at me, both stoned and drunk at the same time, and it took him quite a while before he understood why I was so pissed off. '
Where: Café Flamingo, de Pijp
Who: Daan, bartender
Bill: 24 euros
Caught the customer: Yes
What happened: Recently, an American backpacker sat down at the bar to taste some local beers. We talked about the NFL and every once in a while he would step outside to smoke some weed. Meanwhile, the place was slowly filling up. I wasn't behind the bar constantly and lost track of him at times. When I didn't see him on his bar stool after drinking six pricey, local beers, I figured he was probably outside smoking his joint again. I went outside and scanned the terrace, but didn't find the guy. The moment you realize someone left without paying the check is very unpleasant, to say the least. I quickly turned around the corner to see if he was still in the area, and yes: there he was, slowly making his way to the nearby Gerard Douplein square. I grabbed him by the shirt and angrily showed him the tab. He just stared at me, both stoned and drunk at the same time, and it took him quite a while before he understood why I was so pissed off. After a few "sorry, bros" he gave me 40 euros with a guilty look on his face, so I actually ended up getting a large tip. I don't think he meant any harm and decided that it wasn't worth staying angry about.
'The table looked like a war zone.'
Where: Rose's Cantina, Reguliersdwarsstraat
Who: Morgan, bartender
Bill: 170 euros
Caught the customers: No
What happened: I had been waiting on this family all night. I explained half the menu to them, cracked jokes, gave their kids some stickers we keep for customers who have children. When I came back from the kitchen at one point, they were gone. Coats, purses and bags, kids—everything. The table looked like a war zone. I spent the next two minutes running around in a frenzy, checking the bathrooms, our garden, upstairs, the bar, and asked every one of my co-workers if they had settled the check with this family. Of course they hadn't. I never caught the fuckers.
'It's like having your wallet stolen by someone you trust.'
Where: Café Huyschkaemer, Utrechtsestraat
Who: Adnan Beuqi, owner
Bill: about 40 euros
Caught the customers: Yes
What happened: It happens at least one or two times a month: a customer walks out without paying their bill. It's always the person you least expect. This afternoon, an old lady sat down and ordered coffee and pie. After she ate and drank, she disappeared. Sometimes people simply forget, but that usually only happens when it's late at night and customers are drunk.
This one time, a couple came in and we seated them upstairs. They were clearly very much in love. In between making out, they ordered several rounds of beer and red wine. I would check on them periodically, give them refills, and bring them nachos as requested with extra cheese and jalapeño peppers. Every once in a while, they went outside to smoke a cigarette. When I announced last call, they weren't at their table and I didn't see them outside, either. You really feel screwed over when that happens, especially because you tried your best to accommodate them all night long. It's like having your wallet stolen by someone you trust.
The summer after that happened, I was at an outdoor festival with a coworker. The same couple was there and came up to us, because they recognized us from the bar. They were in great spirits and told us their first date had been at our bar, and that they were planning on coming back every year for their anniversary. My co-worker and I looked at each other in disbelief. "I remember," I replied, 'because you didn't pay your bill.' Apparently they had been so caught up in the moment and their raging hormones that they had forgotten to settle the check. They felt so guilty they treated us to beer and sandwiches all day long. They continue to come to the bar and always pay their bill upfront.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES NL in June 2015.