WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The owner of J. Michael’s Philly Deli, a restaurant with three locations in Wilmington, said an increasing number of dine-and-dash crimes have occurred recently, and the eatery is taking action by posting surveillance images on a wall of shame and filing police reports.
Dine-and-dash, also called a walkout, is a crime where customers order food and eat it, then leave without paying.
“We had an occasional walkout, but starting from the first of this year, it seems it’s gotten more intense the last couple of months," said J. Michael Hutson, who owns three deli locations in Wilmington. “We’ve had an extreme number of walkouts, and it’s just all different groups.”
Hutson said the walkouts total more than $1,000 so far this year. Most of the thefts are occurring at the deli location in the Hanover Center, which has a network of 16 surveillance cameras recording around the clock.
The most recent dine-and-dash happened Saturday, March 9, when a group of 10 people racked up a $105 bill and left without paying. Surveillance video captured a man in the group pulling out his wallet after the meal, then placing it back in his pocket.
He crumpled the bill and threw it in the trash before walking out the front door right past the cash register.
“He was pretty brazen about it, and I mean, they were a beautiful family, a nice looking family," Hutson said. “I don’t understand what would possess someone to do that.”
Other recent incidents caught on camera include two older women walking out without paying, and two men standing in line with to-go boxes who also left without paying.
“We have all this footage. We know they’re walking out on us,” said Hutson.
Earlier this week, Hutson and his employees created a wall of shame featuring still images from surveillance video that are printed and posted with the receipts plastered beside the dine-and-dashers’ images.
Signs with the words, “SMILE! WALKOUTS WILL BE PROSECUTED” are now posted throughout the restaurant and on the entrance door.
“The cameras don’t lie," said Hutson. "If we have accusations, or people make comments, we can always go back to the cameras, and they don’t lie to you.”
On Friday, an officer with the Wilmington Police Department stopped by the deli for the latest police report on the thefts.
“I hope that the public knows that these folks that are doing that, if we do catch them, we will prosecute them," Hutson said. “We are making reports now, and we have film.”
Hutson said the financial losses hurt his business and employees.
“We are a very generous restaurant, we try to give back to our neighborhoods, and we’ve always done that," he said. “It really leaves a sour taste in our mouths to have a small group of people that would steal from us.”
While the restaurant owner does not want to change its operation, he is concerned that he may have no choice.
“We might have to start taking money at the table and changing our system after 40 years because something needs to be done,” said Hutson. “The waitresses, we haven’t asked them to pay for these people doing that, but it certainly hurts our business.”
Wilmington Police Department spokesperson Jennifer Dandron said dine and dash crimes can be difficult cases to solve despite thorough investigations.
“If businesses don’t have a security system, we may struggle to identify the offenders," Dandron told WECT. "Often, though, businesses do have cameras set up in the dining area or lobby where we’re able to get clear pictures of the suspects. Having those images significantly increases our chances of identifying and charging the suspects.”
To catch the criminals, WPD encourages businesses hit by dine and dash theft to contact detectives as soon as possible with a detailed description of the offenders, Dandron said.