Britain’s Christopher Travis still eats for free, but now it’s on the taxpayers’ 5 pence.
The serial dine-and-dasher has a record 86 convictions, plus innumerable arrests that went unprosecuted—13 of those in just the last two years. Stiffing a restaurant for a meal is considered to be such a minor offense that it rarely warrants criminal prosecution, but the flagrant, repeated behavior of this guy needed to be stopped. For his most recent episode—running out on 3 courses plus wine at what was named Britain’s best new restaurant for 2011—he was sentenced to 18 months in prison; an unheard of duration for a theft valued at only £51.52. The courts also took the unusual step of issuing what they called an Anti-Social Behaviour Order banning Mr. Travis from every single restaurant and pub in the UK.
Mr. Travis had been given brief jail time for many of his earlier convictions, which only seemed to whet his appetite, literally. As he told the police officer at his last arrest, for an offense that occurred on just his third day out on parole, he did it because he “just wanted a good meal before [he] went back to jail.”
Restaurants here in the U.S. report that the old dine-and-dash is flourishing in these recessionary times.
And it’s no mere adolescent prank; customers of all stripes are slipping out without paying, stiffing owners and servers at restaurants all along the dining scale. The New York Post goes as far as calling it a ‘hot new trend’ among urban professionals, citing a 20% rise in arrests.
Unlike teenagers who make a run for the door when they realize their allowance won’t cover the price of the pizza slice, the older crowd is more calculated and deliberate. Some customers will ring up a big bill and exit without signing the credit card receipt, leaving the restaurant with little proof when the charge is later contested; others will coordinate a group cigarette break even leaving a dummy cellphone, an old coat, or an empty purse at the table when they step out. Experts claim that for many of them it’s less about economics and more about an overblown sense of entitlement or the thrill of getting away with it.
Dine-and-dash and the law.
Failing to pay for what you order is not normally treated as a crime, as a protection to the diner who was served old oysters or a spoiled bottle of wine, but if the presumption is that the customer never intended to pay the check, it’s considered criminal fraud. And when the tab is high enough, it can be a felony.
Restaurants run on an unusually optimistic business model: they feed you in advance of payment with no chance of recovering the meal if the bill is unpaid. In essence, restaurants extend instant credit to all their patrons without running a credit check, taking collateral, or even demanding identification. There is an element of trust that is unique to the restaurant business, and it’s a civility that’s worth preserving.