Theft in Foodservice

Published in FSD Update

Despite upgrades in security, many operators remain in the dark as to the full scope of the problem.

By Steven Johnson, Associate Editor

Whether an operation feeds thousands of people a day or 500 a week, theft will be a problem the foodservice director faces sooner or later.

Foodservice directors are often placed in the difficult position of playing Big Brother not only to the customers they serve but also the employees they rely on each day. They must construct this careful balance, where a security policy that is too loose can give way to rampant theft while one that is too restrictive can breed mistrust and resentment among staff.

In light of such concerns, FSD spoke with several operators about the measures they take to secure their inventories of food, equipment and cash.

While some operators say they have seen declines in the number of incidents, nearly all agree that the true scope of the problem and the amount of losses that they incur remains very difficult to accurately quantify.

“We have definitely had some incidents where we have called security over customer theft, and we had a cluster of incidents at one time with employee theft,” says Mike Folino, assistant director of hospital dietetics at the Wexner Medical Center at the Ohio State University Medical Center, in Columbus. “What we have caught has been small scale, but it’s hard to capture or measure what we haven’t caught.”

Folino says some of the safeguards his operation uses include cameras, pens that detect counterfeit bills and locks on food storerooms that open only with badge access by chefs and managers.

“One of the more effective techniques against employee theft is accurate food forecasting and food waste monitoring,” Folino says. “You can’t figure out who is stealing food, but you can tell whether food is going missing by measuring how much product you forecast, how much you sold and how much waste there was.”

According to Folino, the problem of employees stealing has been much more significant than theft by customers. “Food in its raw state is much more desirable because there is much more you can do with it,” he says. “So it’s a more significant area of concern.”

Inventory control

A number of operators have stepped up the managing of their inventories in order to better detect discrepancies that could indicate theft. 

“[Theft is] a really significant problem, but without having eyes on it we didn’t know where to start,” says Tony Geraci, executive director of nutrition services for Shelby County Unified School District, in Tennessee. “The first step was to identify what we had, what we didn’t have, where it was supposed to be and then put in a system of measurement that we could really account for things.”

In order to better identify what they had, Geraci says the district last year began implementing a new accountability system from which all inventory could be properly checked. By switching to a new $5 million POS system, Geraci says inventory information, such as items that are currently in stock, what has been sold and what has been used in production, is easier to assess. Geraci also has the ability to track truck shipments through a GPS system. 

“Being able to say, ‘according to the POS system you’re supposed to have 97 chicken patties’ and then match that against production records has been really efficient,” Geraci says. “It’s saved us a couple of million dollars in the first year.”

In spite of technological improvements, Geraci says the problem of theft among the 160,000 students he serves has remained a concern. With so much potential for theft to take place, Geraci says he must ultimately rely on his staff to keep a watchful eye over the crowds. “What becomes a ripe environment for theft is when you crowd people in,” he says. “Students like to graze while they move through the line.” 

Measures aside, Geraci stresses the district has worked to create an open environment where students have greater access to food. He says the change has helped reduce theft by eliminating a student’s motivation to steal in the first place. “We try to create an atmosphere of access rather than denial,” Geraci says. “Most kids in the district qualify for free meals. We have grab-and-go around campus and high-traffic areas and that has helped us to serve more meals.”

According to Melanie Konarik, director of child nutrition for the Spring Independent School District, in Texas, theft is a daily concern among employees, whom she says have become more emboldened to outright steal to make up for the fact they have not seen a pay increase for several years.

“Industry has tightened their budgets so the bus route driver, warehouse personnel, etc., feel they deserve more compensation,” Konarik says. “Students are challenged to attempt theft of food or money, and teachers and building staff feel they deserve a free meal if their students are allowed free meals.”

Konarik says cameras have been installed that store images of all kitchens and serving lines for up to 30 days. Supervisors make unannounced visits to schools to check student meal accounts and conduct audits of cash drawers, petty cash, food inventories and staff work schedules.

“New for this year, there will be no petty cash in schools,” Konarik says. “The supervisor will check that staff is ready to work before clocking in, and clock out before they go to the locker room at the end of the day. Every year we learn of more ways that people attempt to get more for themselves.”

According to Dawn Houser, director of nutrition services for Collier County Public Schools in Florida, preventing student theft begins with reducing crowding in food lines, which she says provides students with the opportunity to steal.

“The server on the line is addressing students right in front of her,” Houser says. “The cashier is dealing with students paying—it’s the interim space you have to dealt with. I’ve seen students who came through the line with backpacks and a student [behind them] was loading food into the backpack.”

Houser says surveillance cameras, POS technology and a policy of frequently rotating cashiers between registers have helped reduce instances of theft by identifying discrepancies in daily counts.

“I had one manager who was reluctant to rotate her cashiers. When she did rotate them and she rotated her best cashier out of the position, she brought in $50 more a day,” Houser says. “Sometimes students or staff may go to the same cashier every day, and they know if they don’t have money a certain cashier will let them go through without money. If you mix up the cashier that helps stop that.”

Houser says letting employees know they are being watched can be a strong enough deterrent to keep them from stealing. “I had a retired policeman who would come in and review tapes,” Houser says. “His wife was a cashier at that school, and I knew the cash had to be walking out the back door. I told the retired policeman there is some theft going on, he told his wife, who told the manager and the revenue went up $300 a day. Nothing else changed except that I planted that seed that I was watching that school.” 

Student theft

Incidents of theft can be particularly rampant within colleges, where some students may feel taking extra food from dining halls or campus convenience stores is included within their tuition costs.

“There’s a perception from our students that their room and board already paid for it, so they begin to think why shouldn’t they be able to take this plate of food or a mug or a sandwich?” Penn State University Director of Residential Dining Lisa Wandel says. “For whatever reason, people feel they paid for it so they can take it with them.”

Wandel says students have been caught filling backpacks with food from a residential dining hall right after finishing a meal, which is not allowed. She says such occurrences seem to happen more often in dining halls than in campus convenience stores.

“At a c-store, I think [for students] it feels more like a retail theft, and then it feels more serious,” she says. “It’s hard to sometimes determine if it’s intentional [stealing] or just mindless behavior.”

Wandel says such incidents can make for a difficult decision on how best to deal with offenders. “We want them to have a good experience on campus and we want to help them grow into responsible adults,” Wandel says. “So when they steal something from the store should we be slapping their knuckles or do we give them the real-world treatment? If it’s done across the street or downtown at a convenience store, believe me the police are going to get called and an arrest is going to be made.”

To counter these incidents, Wandel says a number of simple security measures have been employed, such as making lights brighter and positioning staff in areas where they can better see throughout a store or dining hall.

Other safeguards include training staff to look out for certain red flags in terms of how a customer behaves, installing mirrors and surveillance cameras and positioning more desirable products in places where stealing them is more difficult.

In terms of preventing employee theft, Wandel says workers are required to break down discarded boxes in order to discourage the storage of stolen items, and personal items such as backpacks, knapsacks, pocketbooks and bags are prohibited in the store areas.

Despite these efforts, Wandel says theft among employees can be a bigger problem compared to students because of the amount of access they have, which can make breaches in trust harder to detect. 

“I think it’s something that we just become immune to and we just continue to operate,” Wandel says. “I don’t know if it’s because there’s no answer or you hope people wouldn’t do those things, but I think that we sometimes don’t want to believe it, and that we would be very disappointed if we
learned the truth.” 

Thieves get crafty

Like Wandel, Nancy Keller, residential dining director at Iowa State University, in Ames, has had to address the problem of theft by both students and her staff. 

“We actually had employees posting on Facebook [that they would allow fellow students] to come and eat for free at one of our cafés, and our managers found out,” Keller says. “We utilized cameras with the department of public safety and we fired 15 employees through the campus judicial process.”

Keller says other instances of theft have included cashiers stealing money from registers, as well as cases of students stealing food from residential dining halls.

“Residential all-you-care-to-eat is experiencing more students attempting to pass their card to others,” Keller says. “We even had a set of twin brothers only buy one meal plan and try to scam for two.”

Similar to the incidents seen on other campuses, the University of Southern California’s Hospitality Director Kris Klinger says his dining operation’s problem with theft mostly involves students who take extra food from dining halls or convenience stores, but he has had to employ certain security measures because of instances of theft by employees.

“We have installed cameras in our units to monitor both our employees and the customers,” Klinger says. “We also initiated a secret shopper program that has been beneficial in catching employees violating cash handling procedures in our c-stores, cafés and restaurants.” 

Security measures to counteract theft within hospital, K-12 school and university foodservice operations have had varying degrees of success toward reducing the rate of incidents. But operators should not allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security that such actions will somehow put an end to the problem, says Lynne Ometer, director of food and nutrition services at Emory University Hospitals and Wesley Woods Hospital, in Atlanta.

“Any operator that says it doesn’t happen in their operation is being very naïve,” Ometer says. “Theft is estimated to equate to 10% of your revenue or cost base, and food is something everyone has a need for, so it’s a natural for people to want to take it.”