Dine and dash 'adds insult to injury' for Suffolk's hospitality firms
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Aggression and claims of glass in their meals are among the tactics used by dine and dashers, as they "add insult to injury" to East Anglia's hospitality industry.
Restaurants have slammed customers who leave without paying the bill after new figures revealed that charges and summons rates for the crimes have fallen.
And, hospitality bosses added, a small minority of customers are treating staff more disrespectfully than prior to the pandemic.
New figures from Suffolk police show that 254 incidents of leaving without paying were reported in 2020/21.
This was down from the year before - when 527 incidents were reported - however given lockdowns towards the end of last year, and the start of this year, many establishments were not even open for service.
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Despite this, the rate of cases being dropped due to problems with evidence has increased.
In years prior the rate of cases being dropped because of a lack of evidence has between 18.6% and 27.7%. But in the year 2020/21 the rate climbed to 33.4%.
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This came despite the rate of perpetrators being charged or summonsed only climbing very slightly to 5%.
Julie Penney, owner of The Swan Inn in Monks Eleigh, fell victim to a dine and dash incident in 2020.
The Swan was taken for £56 on a quiet evening.
She said: "They were one of only two tables that were booked in with us, so what their meal came to was essentially going to be paying our staffs wages.
"Them making off without payment, that meant we had to find that extra bit of money.
"It's been a real struggle for everyone in the hospitality industry, especially with the restrictions and the lower customer confidence in coming in.
"And then you have people that use that to their advantage.
"When I spoke to the police about it, they just said it's a civil matter, and we'd have to pursue it through small claims court. It wasn't until I got a lot of people together to make a case that they did something."
Despite this Mrs Penney said she did not want to "tar everyone with the same brush".
"It's very difficult to know what to do really to stop it happening again," she said. "You don't want to think everyone coming into your pub is going to rip you off.
"It's the hospitality industry, you've got to be hospitable.
"You don't think that people would stoop as low as, some people do.
"I don't know how to change it. The only thing would be to get people to pay in advance like Wetherspoons and other places, but that's not really what we want to do."
Stephen Hutton, the owner of grill and steakhouse chain Middleton's, which has a branch in Colchester, said: "We have seen an increase of dine and dashers in recent months - perhaps one or two tables a week across our ten sites.
"It loses us maybe £400 or £500 across the business - people tend to order the high-price ticket items like lobster and fillet steak, as well as alcohol."
He went on: "There are tactics we see them using. A lot of the time we have people claiming they find glass in their food and then in the chaos that ensues they try and leave.
"A lot of the time they also get very aggressive in the blink of an eye. We have had an issue recently where someone threatened a member of staff with a steak knife.
"All I can do as an owner is keep my staff and customers safe and have procedures in place to ensure that, because that's the most important thing."
On why he thinks this behaviour is making a comeback, he said: "I think people know hospitality has had such an awful time and think they can get away with it, because they know we're too desperate to turn people away. I think we're also targeted because we have more covers, you wouldn't get away with it in a smaller place."