Unclassified Info: Larceny in the buffet line, and other crimes

I have a pet peeve: I am dumbfounded by people who steal the little packets of Splenda from coffee houses and restaurants.

You all know who you are. And I’m willing to bet that many of you are acquainted with one or two of society’s greatest slight-of-hand artists. They are the ones who get a cup of coffee and then, when no one is watching, will grab 20 or 30 little yellow packets and drop them in their bag or stuff them in a pocket. The more creative ones will gingerly wrap them in a napkin before exiting stage right.

I suppose the public mania speaks volumes about the brand itself. More often than not, the only container of the stuff at Panera is the one that formerly held the Splenda. There’s always plenty of sugar, Sweet’n Low and an abundance of Equal, but those little yellow packages must have some addictive quality because normally law-abiding individuals can’t seem to resist the temptation to help themselves.

But Splenda thieves are not the only ones that get my head shaking in disbelief. I have a relative who regularly tells waiters it’s her birthday at restaurants just to get a free dessert.

These little larcenies pale in comparison to those individuals who believe buffets are really Costco in disguise. When did the term “all-you-can-eat” come to be synonymous with “all-you-can-take”?

A number of years ago, I went to a lavish seafood brunch at the old Los Feliz Inn. It was a spectacular offering of delicacies from the deep. While enjoying my $30 meal, I happened to notice a family, nicely dressed and, by all appearances, well-off. Yet there they were, shuffling back and forth from buffet to table with plate after plate of crab legs, which the mother was brazenly stuffing into plastic bags.

I sat there stunned, watching this otherwise charming nuclear family steal crustacean components like Bonnie and Clyde at a bank. Unable to keep quiet, I got up and told the manager, who thanked me and promptly kicked the family out. Of course, the kids shot me a dirty look for reporting their behavior.

More recently, I’ve seen similar family hit squads helping themselves at Souplantation using the infamous “disappearing muffin in the napkin” trick. Once again, kids act as decoys, fetching the baked goods. The plate goes to mom, who deftly dumps the edibles into the napkin sitting in her lap. She then sends the kids back for more.

I think it’s reasonable to assume that the price we pay for the right to stuff ourselves into oblivion does not come with a free pass to stock our cabinets in preparation for Armageddon. But I’ve been wrong before.

So I asked an employee at Souplantation if they had a standing policy regarding patrons who get caught pilfering. The employee asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly, but he did tell me that the company has a rule that “Revenues are to be eaten on-premises.”

“Even if we catch a customer, it’s not worth it,” he told me. “They get offended, make a big stink out of it and tell the manager we are harassing them and then we get in hot water for upsetting the customer.”

“So it’s pretty much a free for all?” I asked.

“Let’s just say we tend to look the other way,” was his response.

I guess if I was faced with hostile customers, I’d do the same. But I’m not. And neither are most of you.

Which begs the question, should we look the other way? Or just join the others at the trough?

GARY HUERTA is a Glendale resident and author. He is working on his second novel and the second half of his life. Gary may be reached at gh@garyhuerta.com.

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