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What’s to be Learned From the Case of Jamie Oliver and 30,000 Missing Napkins?

Jamie Oliver's napkins

Upon discovering that Jamie Oliver loses 30,000 napkins a month to petty-theft, I could not help but feel slightly disappointed. Did no one, for example, have the imagination to pinch all occurrences of the letter ‘S’ from his menus? Or perhaps his well-thumbed edition of ‘The Little Book of Right Pukka Mockney Vocabulary… Guvnor’? It was also dispiriting to learn that someone who strives to model himself on a cross between the Artful Dodger and Pete Beale should so willingly turn grass and start squealing.

Jamie, mistakenly, put this spate of kleptomania down to the recession, but it is nothing new. Back when business was booming and everyone had their pockets stuffed with enough £50 notes not to bother with the napkins, Quaglino’s found their ashtrays proved just as popular amongst London’s light-fingered diners. They estimated to have lost more than 25,000 of the Terence Conran-designed ashtrays which went on to acquire cult status among foodies and aesthetes alike. At the time Quaglino’s turned this misfortune into a PR opportunity, launching an ashtray amnesty in the Evening Standard offering a free glass of bubbly for every ashtray returned. Incidentally few made their way home.

It really isn’t that uncommon. Who can honestly say that, after one too many, they haven’t wandered home with a pint glass, slipped the salt shaker in the pocket of an unsuspecting friend, or disconnected a toilet and worn it home as a hat? Anyone? No, me neither.

It is just one of many behind the scenes costs restaurants incur to which the majority of customers are completely oblivious. We have all felt that pang of outrage when, perusing the wine list you notice a bottle you saw in the supermarket a week earlier at less than half the price. But it’s easy to forget that restaurateurs have to pay for a waiter to recommend and pour the wine, the table you’re sitting at to drink it and the glass you sip it from. In a fortnight’s time that very same glass will wander off in a handbag in the name of hen party high-jinx.

A successful restaurateur has to consider a vast number of differentials and somehow, turn it all into a profit. Factoring in the changing price of ingredients, kitchen equipment wear-and-tear, special offers, staff and the rent on a high-profile location requires careful consideration. If like, Jamie Oliver, you operate restaurants up and down the country and have a number of best-selling cookery books, then you can probably afford to lose the occasional napkin. What’s more the bigger boys normally have complex back-end systems in place that can take on board variables in price and react accordingly. Through the advent of cloud computing, these systems are becoming more widely available throughout the sector and it’s not before time.

Unless smaller restaurants can maintain control of these myriad costs, while simultaneously fending off grasping revellers, hell-bent on relieving them of anything they can fit in their pockets, bags or feasibly pass off as a hat, then they will struggle to stay in business. The demise of small independent restaurants would be a considerable loss and, I believe, the final nail in the High Street’s coffin.

Steven Hope, Co-founder and Director of etc hospitality