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Ask George: What do restaurants do when a customer leaves his wallet at home and is unable to pay? Mitch K, St. Louis
I can relate because it happened to me…and I left my wristwatch as collateral.
Restaurants deal with this situation all the time, believe it or not, and handle the situation a number of different ways.
I've heard of people on both sides who are funny about it—like the manager who asked a customer to leave one shoe behind; or the woman who voluntarily left both shoes behind, and since it was a nice day, walked home and back, barefoot.
The most common solutions are as follows, in order of frequency (my opinion):
1. Ask the customer to come back–later or the next day—with payment. This method is least invasive, builds trust, gains (or maintains) customer loyalty, and rarely backfires. Most managers are fairly astute to scammers and will use more aggressive means (see #6 below) if they think they are being taken.
2. The restaurant gets personal information from the diner—home, work, and cell phone numbers, addresses of work and home, etc. I used to put this information on the pertinent guest check, and had the customer sign it like it was an IOU. Today, I'd suggest taking the person's picture as well.
3. Leave something behind as collateral—a watch, a cell phone, a laptop, a small child.
4. Have the customer call home to arrange for payment.
5. Have a server/bartender (someone who knows them in-house) vouch for them until they return.
6. Call the police—not long ago, if a customer entered a restaurant and obtained food/drink and was unable to pay, he had “defrauded the innkeeper” (an old term for running out on a hotel bill), a punishable offense. The term was associated with restaurants because "inns" were places where food and lodging could be found for one price under one roof. Today the offense is called “theft of services,” but is no less punishable.
And I suppose that as technology improves, any and all payments will be made via one's cellphone, rendering the above scenarios moot...unless that gets left at home, too.
Personally, I keep a spare check in the car, but more importantly, an “emergency $20” that I hide under the floormat. It's paid for many a lunch and got me in and out of many a cash-only parking lot.