Food Industry

Miami Diners Steal Restaurants' Signature Swag

Since opening in late 2014, 27 Restaurant & Bar has served its food on plates that look as if they were culled from a grandmother's house, a kitschy tourist attraction, or a bastion of fine dining. Many dishes come from thrift shops in Miami and beyond. "Everyone [working here] has their favorite plate," says Jimmy Lebron, the restaurant's bearded, 33-year-old chef, "and whenever they do a special, that's what they want to serve it on."

Some plates are stark white with a pencil-thin gold border and a sole grapevine at the center. Others are covered with tiny pastel flowers, while still others have wavy edges encircling images of butterflies fluttering past half-ripe strawberries.

But things aren't as pleasant as they seem. These dishes, after they leave the kitchen carrying everything from short-rib-filled arepas to falafel turned emerald with parsley, often disappear. Admiring dinner guests, it seems, pilfer them.

One dish that vanished was simple and white, adorned with a portrait of a lazy-eyed giraffe. "If someone has it, please bring it back," says Lebron, who often sports a backward baseball cap. "I'll give you any other plate we have for it."

Places all over South Florida, indeed across the United States, deal with dinnerware theft. And though the cost is often factored into budgets, increasing losses are pushing many restaurants to rethink how they do things, including selling some of the most popular items people purloin.

"People don't really come here to pilfer the mugs. It's accidental."

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It's difficult to quantify just how much patrons, tipsy or otherwise, are stuffing into their pockets and purses. Consulting companies that deal with restaurant theft tend to focus on theft of money by staff. There's little data about what customers take, but there's no shortage of outlandish anecdotes. In 2014, someone stole the pig statue from April Bloomfield's gastropub the Spotted Pig in New York City. The owner of Washington, D.C.'s Granville Moore told Washington City Paper his Belgian beer restaurant loses nearly $2,000 worth of beer mugs to theft annually. In 2012, New York's famed Waldorf Astoria offered an amnesty program allowing people to return items without questions or punishment.

One spot that's been targeted is Pawn Broker, a bar perched atop downtown's renovated Langford Hotel. As city lights glitter outside, one can toast Prohibition-era bootleggers with a drink dubbed "Giggle Water" ($16). Gin, champagne syrup, and tonic are blended and then strained. The libation is served in a miniature porcelain bathtub decorated with roses — a nod to the liquor distilled in tubs during Prohibition.

Just before servers deliver the drink, bartenders crown it with a layer of lavender-perfumed foam. Since the bar opened this past spring, most of the little bathtubs, which cost anywhere from $9 to $12.50 apiece, have disappeared. "Now we don't have enough to get through a service," says Andreas Schreiner, one of the owners. "We're telling waiters to look for empty ones... and bring them back to the bar so we can wash and reuse them."

In the past six months, Schreiner says, the watering hole has lost six dozen of the tubs, nearly all of them to theft. He plans to order 500 more and let customers buy them for a small fee with the drink. This, he hopes, will serve a dual purpose: It will help make up the cost of all those stolen tubs and will be a kind of marketing for the bar. Schreiner hopes that when people visit a home with one of the wee bathtubs, they'll ask about it. "We'll chalk it up to advertising," he says.

Schreiner, one-third of the Pubbelly Restaurant Group that has opened several eateries in Miami Beach's Sunset Harbour and beyond, has also seen theft at its other projects. When he, Jose Mendin, and Sergio Navarro opened Pubbelly in 2010, the bathroom walls were lined with black-and-white photos of Star Trek figurines and Barbie dolls posed across South Beach. Within weeks, the pictures were gone. So too were the vintage cassettes and record covers that replaced the snapshots. "Now everything that's in the bathroom is screwed on," Schreiner says.

Some places smartened up a while ago. Shortly after Fort Lauderdale's Mai-Kai opened in 1956, it began selling a grim-faced, technicolor tiki mug in its gift shop. In hopes of preventing theft, the restaurant recently began selling a handful of drink mugs for an up-charge. Tag $4 onto the $12 Mara Amu rum punch to keep the snarling beige cup in which it arrives. Taking home the brown-and-red grog that bears flaming rum blended with honey cream, coffee, and fragrant spices such as cinnamon will run you $25. The charge helps prevent customers from walking off with still-damp mugs. "Once you explain to people they can buy the mug or leave it here, they understand," general manager Kern Mattei says. "People don't really come here to pilfer the mugs. It's accidental. Education is the biggest key to fixing most problems."

Still, mugs occasionally vanish. "Some people just want to take one," Mattei says. "I would think the only way to stop it altogether is if we had something implanted in the mug."

Indeed, cups of all sizes seem to be the most commonly snatched pieces. At Panther Coffee in Wynwood, patrons regularly polish off their espresso and then help themselves to the demitasse. "It's obvious when it happens," Panther owner Leticia Pollock says. "Someone will go to clear a table, and there's only a saucer."

Pollock buys the cups from Los Angeles design company Not Neutral for $9 each. Last month, she ordered more than 100 to restock Panther's three cafés in Wynwood, Miami Beach, and Coconut Grove. Like Pawn Broker's Schreiner, she's considering selling the cups for a small charge on top of the drink.

And she's hesitant to put the Panther logo on anything. "As soon as that's on there, it's guaranteed it'll be stolen," she says.

Some places don't have it as easy. And those that serve food or drinks in signature setups are finding it consistently more challenging to hold onto their stuff. The bar inside Brickell cabaret club El Tucán recently partnered with Bar Lab and Absolut Vodka to create a cocktail named for the club. In the $12 concoction go Absolut Elyx — the brand's priciest distillation — a splash of St-Germain, watermelon, lemon, and lychee juice. The mixture is strained into a solid-copper goblet shaped like an art deco toucan. Sleek, ruffled feathers are etched onto the cup's sides, swelling up into its chest. A server removes the bird's shining bill to reveal the drink, crowned with a bouquet of mint.

El Tucán isn't the only place to serve its drink in copper cups. At Pao, in the Faena Hotel, waiters keep a sharp eye on similar copper unicorns one says cost $500 apiece. Four months ago, when El Tucán launched the drink, it had about 20 of its own copper cups. Today it has 11, according to creative director Emilia Menocal. "We know they're being stolen," she says. Now servers are responsible for ensuring that the toucans make it back to the bar. "People are sketchy," she says. "If a plate is missing, it's OK. This is a signature piece; it's not OK."

Is it moral to steal crockery or cups? No. Schreiner suggests diners ask a restaurant for a piece that catches their eye. The waiter or maître'd might just give it to you. "You'd be surprised," he says.

Lebron says a diner recently asked for a clean copy of 27's paper placemat showing an illustration of Florida and listing the city's favorite restaurants. The plan was to take it home and frame it. "It's like people want to take a piece of 27 home with them," he says. So now, pieces of many of Miami's favorite restaurants are scattered in homes across the city. Maybe Lebron won't get back that favorite plate with a picture of the sleepy giraffe. But at least whoever has it now will think about the restaurant every time he or she pulls it out of the cupboard and maybe send a few customers there.

27 Restaurant & Bar
2727 Indian Creek Dr., Miami Beach; 305-531-2727; Daily 6:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

El Tucán
1111 SW First Ave., Miami; 305-535-0065; Thursday 7:30 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 7:30 p.m. to 3 a.m.

3599 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale; 954-563-3272; Thursday 7:30 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 7:30 p.m. to 3 a.m.

Panther Coffee
2390 NW Second Ave., Miami; 305-677-3952; Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Pawn Broker
121 SE First St., Miami; 305-420-2200; Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday 4 to 10 p.m.

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson