Crime factors affecting restaurants

August 2003 Security Services & Risk Management

Restaurants have always had a greater exposure to crime when compared to other types of businesses because of the nature of their cash-based activities and extended business hours.

Other factors adding to a restaurant's vulnerability to crime are their open door approach and the general lack of staff security screening prior to employment. Furthermore, some restaurants are also more vulnerable to robbery due to their location along suburban roads, on isolated corners/areas, near major routes, eg, freeway ramps and main roads, which provides an ideal getaway for criminals. Due to a general lack of security and the confined area where business is usually conducted, restaurants are considered as attractive targets, not only for the availability of cash but also for the presence of valuables belonging to staff and diners.

Furthermore, the risk of armed robbery is also considered to be on the increase due to other types of businesses implementing stringent security measures, which usually results in crime being displaced to softer targets.

As a result of the above vulnerabilities, restaurants may fall victim to different types of criminal activities, such as armed robbery, theft, fraud and burglary.

Armed robbery

Due to the possibility of physical violence being inflicted, armed robbery is the most feared risk. The risk of robbery during business hours is very real. According to The Star newspaper (17 July 2003), in the first six months of 2003, robbers hit at least 38 restaurants and fast food outlets in the Johannesburg area, although the figure may easily be higher as no official statistics are available. According to the same report, police confirmed a sharp increase in attacks against food establishments. Robbers usually worked in large groups with some of them occasionally entering the restaurants as customers and sitting at a table before striking suddenly with their accomplices guarding the venue from outside.

In many instances robbers not only target the available cash but also personal items belonging to staff and diners, eg cellphones, wallets, watches and jewellery. During the robbery the possibility of serious injuries is always present.

A robbery event may therefore have serious consequences not only for the direct victims but also for the restaurant itself, its name and reputation. In fact, as a result of the trauma following a robbery, customers may decide that it is better to eat out at a safer place.

Armed robbery may also be committed after hours, such as when owners or managers (known to be in possession of the restaurant keys, alarm code and safe keys) are attacked on their way home in the parking lot, along a public road, or whilst in the 'safety' of their home. In the latter case, family members may be present during the robbery, thus aggravating an already serious situation.


Whilst the majority of staff remain loyal and honest towards their employers, a few dishonest members of staff may cause considerable losses, especially if the latter remain undetected over a period of time.

General working staff may steal items such as food stock, beverages and general equipment. Senior staff, eg, managers, supervisors and even business partners, may abuse certain facilities, eg, telephones and hospitality, such as when friends and family members are invited to the restaurant, without the owner's knowledge, and the meals consumed are either not invoiced or under-invoiced.

Cash is always at risk. Dishonest cashiers may steal money if presented with a good opportunity, especially if in cahoots with a waiter/waitresses. Furthermore, dishonest managers, supervisors and partners who live above their means, or because of certain addictions, eg, substance and gambling, may 'make up' sudden/unexplained losses and attempt to blame them on someone else.

Diners may commit theft, such as when items are removed from the table and hidden inside a bag. They may also steal bags and wallets from unaware victims sitting at a table near them.

However, theft may also affect customers. For instance, if the restaurant parking facilities are not adequately lit and secured, their vehicles could be stolen or broken into, thus causing a lot of inconvenience and financial loss, which again reflects badly on the restaurant, resulting in a loss of business.


Fraudsters often target restaurants. Fraudulent activities usually involve stolen credit/debit cards, cheques and counterfeit currency. The fraudster may even have other stolen documents (belonging to the genuine card holders) to support the use of the stolen cards or cheques.

It must also be stated that dishonest members of staff may perpetrate credit card fraud against customers by, for instance, using a counterfeit method called 'skimming' whereby a customer hands over a card for payment and the details on its magnetic strip are copied by the card being swiped through a small handheld device. The data is then used to make dummy cards for e-mail, telephone and virtual transactions. Card number details can also be found on discarded receipts and can provide enough details to create fake cards.

Senior members of staff, eg, managers or bookkeepers, may also resort to fraud and theft by, for instance, producing false invoices and pay them into pre-arranged bank accounts. This type of risk is often underestimated. Losses may run into tens of thousands before the fraud is detected.

Suppliers may over-invoice certain goods or provide inferior quality at a higher price. Products may be paid to a fictitious supplier, which in actual fact have never been delivered to the restaurant.

The possible use of counterfeit currency by fraudsters should always be kept in mind. While this area of fraud is still relatively small, the cost of individual incidents can be high, as forgers tend to produce large denomination banknotes.

Furthermore, due to increasing numbers of international tourists visiting South Africa, restaurant owners may be tempted to accept foreign currency. This action, besides being in contravention of the law, exposes them to the risk of receiving foreign counterfeit banknotes. Furthermore, thanks to high-tech computers and colour copies, it is relatively easy for a fraudster to reproduce traveller's cheques of sufficient quality to fool untrained eyes.


Criminals may target restaurants not only during business hours but also after hours. Casual thieves may try their luck and break into a restaurant with the intention to steal petty cash, food and expensive drinks.

More professional thieves, on the other hand, may attempt to break into the safe. In both instances, whilst inside the premises, criminals may resort to acts of vandalism or arson resulting in considerable material and financial losses.


The risk factors described above imply that restaurants can be subjected to multiple victimisation. Robbery in particular may have serious psychological and physical consequences for the victims as well as a negative effect on the restaurant itself.

Restaurant owners should therefore consider the adoption of all available crime preventative measures in order to minimise the risk. Expert advice should be sought in order for the adopted risk reduction measures to be both security and cost effective.

Elio Zannoni, consulting editor
Elio Zannoni, consulting editor


Elio Zannoni is a criminologist and specialist in crime risk factors and prevention strategies. For further information on how to manage the threat of industrial and commercial espionage effectively, he can be contacted at International Threat Analysis - a division of Corporate Confidential Solutions - on 011 792 3739, fax: 011 791 6352, e-mail:

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