Compliments of the House

Is it all right to snag soufflé cups, or am I just from a family of petty pilferers?


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I’m not sure how it came about, but one day my co-workers and I literally stood around the water cooler and casually discussed the pocket-sized items that we, or someone we knew, had smuggled out of restaurants and hotels.

The first impenitent confessor was a coworker whose family takes a cruise every winter. Every year when they were small, she and her younger sister would pocket a fork from one of their dinners on board. Many years later, my colleague created a mobile of the “souvenir” forks and gifted it to her younger sister. It’s a sweet story, but I was initially astonished that the coworker, to all appearances a steady and law-abiding character, shrugged off this youthful indiscretion as a fit of childhood caprice, a sweet and whimsical memory.

But as it turns out, everyone at that water cooler had a comparable memory of whimsical petty pilfering — including myself. In my family, we still gleefully remind each other that whenever we got take-out containers for leftovers from dinner at a well-known seafood chain, my father would pack the restaurant’s little soufflé cups of melted butter or cocktail sauce into the Styrofoam containers along with our uneaten shrimp and fries. At the time, we giggled and looked shifty-eyed as a family, half-pretending to keep a lookout for wait staff. We knew that it wasn’t exactly proper; these weren’t disposable cups, they were ersatz Fiestaware and clearly reusable. We wouldn’t have dreamed of walking out with a similar receptacle, like the bowl that held the scampi or the table salt and pepper shakers. But, we reasoned, how else would we get the dipping sauce home? Like my colleague’s cruise forks, the soufflé cups became a family in-joke, a memento of bonding over the harmless quirks of our loved ones. Many years later, when my older brother and I began learning to cook, we found the little cups ideal for holding chopped herbs or the ground spices we blended together.

If we had to do some mental gymnastics to reconcile “cherished memory” with “stolen property,” we are in a fine company of world-class rationalizers. The Waldorf Astoria in New York is currently running an amnesty program for the return of stolen robes, silverware, and other service items (most of which are temptingly emblazoned with the name of the renowned hotel). The Stockholm hotel that hosts the Nobel Prize formal dinner replaces hundreds of silver coffeespoons after the award banquet. And every few years, a major news outlet will run a story on all the objects that walk out of nice restaurants and B&Bs: entire bowls of mints, peppermills (lots of peppermills!), whole sets of glassware, light fixtures, antique benches. When pressed for a theory of why these losses occur, most articles come around to the same theme: entitlement. This is, we’re told by every think piece written since 2000, the Age of Entitlement, so of course diners and guests are walking out the door with everything that isn’t nailed down (and a few things that are).

But that over-used note rings a little false here. Okay, if you are a perfectly wealthy patron who simply doesn’t want to go through the trouble of buying the fluffy bathrobe you wore at the Waldorf Astoria then, sure, that sounds like entitlement. However, if you bring your tools to a high-end restaurant and carefully unscrew and replace the vintage bathroom faucets, entitlement does not begin to cover your issues. Or, if sneaking glasses into your shoulder bag from every bar you visit gives you a rush of adrenaline, then you’re looking at an impulse-control disorder, which is a bit more complex than entitlement. Those incidents seem to differ in more than a degree from the spoon-lifting Nobel Prize diners or the Splenda-snuffing patrons of the café where I used to work — people whose tableside transgressions don’t extend beyond one specific time or place, who would never dream of walking out of a restaurant with a whole peppermill or a grocery store with a bottle of stolen barbecue sauce.

Rather than suggesting personal flaws or social ills, these small-time examples of petty pilfering have more in common with what is known as the fraud triangle — three conditions that tend to be in place when an individual without a criminal history commits fraud, theft, or similar crime. One condition is opportunity. For example, the forks and spoons and glassware we borrow for the length of a meal are small and in close proximity to the body. They can also be difficult to track, which is why some restaurants have wait staff count pieces when clearing the table. Another condition of the triangle is rationalization, which is also an easy leap in the hospitality industry, where the boundaries of property seem softer and more permeable than other circumstances. The diners who sneak silver spoons from the Nobel Prize dinner might not dream of taking a similar item from a display case in a store, but then in the store they usually don’t allow customers to put the spoons in their mouths. Proximity creates a sort of rationalization — I’m using it anyway, it’s my spoon — as does the circumstance of paying for an event as much as a service. Nobel Prize diners and cruise-goers both pay for the privilege of an irreplaceable experience; the accoutrements of the experience, such as silverware, may then seem to be covered by the entry fee. In the case of complimentary items that go flying out of the door, the consumer is removed from the consideration of payment, and so may think nothing of taking handfuls of “free” goods.

My café eventually moved the Splenda behind the counter, released by request only. It’s probably fair to say that a certain detachment from financial considerations plays a role in most restaurant theft; one might think that a cruise line has hundreds of forks, so one won’t be missed; a few soufflé cups won’t affect the chain restaurant’s bottom line; at the prices they charge, this upscale restaurant can afford to replace one steak knife. This kind of rationalization has a name: the tragedy of the commons.

But the third element of the fraud triangle is motivation and, most of the time, most of us don’t have it. Typically, we readily participate in the tacit agreement that the accoutrements of a meal or overnight stay are for temporary use only, and that our gain is another’s loss. No one likes to think of themselves as sneaky, opportunistic, or dishonest and, usually, it’s not worth a free fork to tarnish that self-image. But on the other hand, we might like to think of ourselves as fun, or loving, or quirky, or practical. So every once in awhile, an individual may be sufficiently motivated to take something from the table — if the taking can be satisfactorily cast in the mind as a souvenir (like my coworker’s forks or the Nobel Prize spoons), or a compliment of the house (like the soufflé cups), or a smart economical shortcut (like the handfuls of Splenda.) This is especially likely to be true when the occasion is a social one: It’s a lot easier to justify an inherently selfish action if we believe we’re doing it for someone else’s sake.

This is, I admit, mostly guesswork and projection on my part; aside from college, when it really seems like everyone makes off with a souvenir cafeteria tray, I don’t think I’ve ever purposefully pocketed a spoon. Definitely no peppermills. But on the other hand… I do still really enjoy my family’s “heirloom” soufflé cups.• 27 February 2013


By day, Sara Davis is a marketer for a university press. By night, she is a dissertating student of literature — 90% toward a doctorate and buffering. When not working toward the production of scholarly books from one end or the other, she might be found supporting the performing arts scene by taking tickets or buying them, or else standing around at farmer’s markets, squeezing all the peaches. She writes about food in art and literature at Scenes of Eating. She also writes for the online magazine Table Matters.