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5 Ways Servers Steal Your Money

Server Stealing MoneyA server stealing from their restaurant is nothing new. Each year this happens thousands of times. It is also very seldom reported in the media. Most of these things are handled in house which means that you have no idea if the employee you just hired was fired from their last three jobs for theft. When it does hit the media it is disastrous for the restaurant. Even though the restaurant did the right thing by prosecuting the thief, the confidence of a restaurant’s customer base can be rocked for some time.

The best case scenario in this situation is always to catch the scam before it spreads. One server successfully executing a scam can lead to others following suit. This can mean an epidemic of theft that robs you of both money and a good portion of your staff.

Most people are honest and will not steal. The perfect storm of watching others benefit from the scam and thinking it is harmless to a large corporation provides justification to otherwise honest servers. Knowing how to catch these scams before they cost your restaurant money and staff is vital.

Here are 5 basic scams to watch out for:

1. The Penny Trick

This scam dates back well before my time in restaurants. A bartender places a penny, paper clip, or other item in the bar drawer each time they don’t ring in a cash drink. This is generally done with the same drink so the bartender can multiply the price of the drink by the number of items to know how much to pull from the drawer and place in their pocket.

The way to catch this one is simple. Most registers now have a large “no sale” message on the screen when the drawer is opened to make change. If money goes in the drawer at this point, there may be a problem. Bar drawers should be audited for any irregularities. No personal items should be allowed behind the bar. This also will prevent the theft of a bottle. The first line of defense though is to not have your drink prices end in even numbers. $3.00 draws including tax might be easier on your guests, but it also makes it easy for a thief.

2. Post Payment Adjustments

This one might be the most common and the most costly. Servers will ask the manager for an adjustment (comp, void, coupon, etc) to a check. What the manager does not know is that the table has already left and paid in cash. The server pockets the difference in the check before and after discount. This is increasingly common with the number of coupons and discounts offered entice guests to dine in a slow economy.

While it is the most common, it is also the easiest to combat. As soon as a manager does one of these discounts, they should visit the table. If the table is not there or has just started the meal, further investigation is required. This is also a great opportunity for a table touch anyway to ask how they got the coupon and when you will see them back.

3. The Buffet Trick

I knew of this trick before I waited my first table. At a restaurant where a ticket is not required to get food from the kitchen, a server will simply drop the check of a previous table with an identical tab. This is most common on salad bars and buffets. The restaurant is out the food and the server pockets the entire check.

If you run a buffet style restaurant and do not have procedures in place to combat this, this is most likely already happening. The simplest protocol here is to match the number of guests to the number the server charges for. I have seen this done in a number of ways, but the easiest is matching serial numbers on two chits. One is placed on the table by the host and retained by the server. The other is kept at the host stand. At the end of the night the numbers are matched to insure every meal is accounted for.

4. The Floating Soda

This is another old scam that should be addressed by modern POS systems. A server charges a table for their meal and their soda. If the table pays with cash, the soda is transferred to another table prior to closing the tab. This allows the server to pocket the price of a single soda numerous times. While this may not seem substantial, over time it adds up.

Your POS system should not allow servers to transfer any item without manager approval. Honest mistakes do happen and sometimes a manager will need to do this. Choosing not to make this task the manager’s responsibility is the equivalent of allowing it to occur. No matter how much you trust your staff, this temptation should be eliminated. Sodas should also be set up as a separate tracking category and servers with low soda sales should draw special attention.

5. Padding Checks

This one is the toughest to catch, but the most dangerous to your reputation. The restaurant is not directly out any money on this scam. Instead the server simply adds an extra drink to the guest’s tab. This is usually done with the same drink the guest is already having. The guest chalks it up to having one more than they thought and pays the bill without question. The server consumes the drink and continues to serve their guests.

This one is tough to catch because it will not show up on any report. The effects can be wildly felt though. If the guest catches it, they will raise hell. The number of people a scammed guest will tell dwarfs the number in the old adage about unhappy guests telling more people than a happy guest. You also are now left with a drunk server on your floor. Clear plastic cups for employee drinks and frequent communication with your servers throughout the night is the best way to catch this scam.

This is most certainly only a partial list. It does not include short-term scams that will be caught within the week. An employee that is trying to steal from you will show incredible ingenuity. Knowing how to prevent these most common ones will make it far more difficult. The key is deterrence and preventing the spread before it costs your restaurant money, staff, and reputation.

Read how to deal with a thief once you catch them.

About David Hayden

David Hayden is the author and founder of The Hospitality Formula Network, a series of blogs designed to help managers and servers provide superior service to their guests. This and many other outstanding articles to help managers and servers excel can be found throughout The Hospitality Formula Network.

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  1. No offense, but I have worked for far more establishments that steal from their employees than the other way around. As a matter of fact, EVERY restaurant I worked for after 1998 or so tried to steal from the front of house staff.

    • No offense taken! That is terrible, did you ever do anything about it… report the issue?

    • EXACTLY! lol….

      I worked for a place that took 30 percent or more of your tips when you would make an average of $20 for a lunch shift, because they had to pay the “bus boy” who by the way did nothing but help his fellow Hispanic workers. After “tip-out” one time I went home with $6 for an seven hour shift because I only had three tables the whole shift. They overstaff, figuring it isn’t hurting them to pay each of you $2.15 an hour. I also worked for another place that refused to pay me for all the hours I worked. So lets talk about THEFT. It’s the greedy owners and managers, not the servers, who are the biggest thieves of all. To “Molly” who are you going to report it to? These restaurants know you do not have the money or time to fight them over a few hundred dollars, in addition to having a black mark against you for reporting someone to the local labor board.

  2. okay. I know i’m way behind on this post but I just want people to be informed. I have been a server for MANY years and I personally have never done any of this but I have heard of people doing only one thing on this list. The floating soda thing is the only thing I know that has been done, and guess what?? ALL THOSE PEOPLE WERE FIRED!! Never heard of dropping off checks that are exactly the same as the table before(cuz when does that ever happen!) or adding an extra drink (really I need $2 more?) or lying about food needing to be taken off w/o consent of manager (that’s the reason they r there!! or one reason). But the one that made me laugh hardest is the lie about the penny trick. First of all bartenders are completely in charge of their drawers so if they want to take money out, then they have complete control of that. What they don’t have control of is the liquor count or food count that happens biweekly/nightly respectively. So next time you think your server is going to steal from you our the company, guess again. Because they work hard for that $2 an hour salary but they live off the tips that you give them! Last EVERYTHING is tracked in a restaurant, so our managers know exactly what we are ringing up and closing out our checks as. Everything is double checked so you as the customer won’t get that shady person adding a dollar to the tip, they will be fired. YOUR WELCOME FOR SERVING YOU!!

  3. The 2 sided tape under the serving tray scam. 2 sided tape is placed under a serving tray and the server places the tray on top of your money pile when drinks are coming or going from your table.This scam is popular in night clubs and bars.

  4. Better yet, just stop dining out at restaurants. We had problems with 1) greedy servers, demanding more than 20% tips, 2) waiter trying to get us to leave while we were still eating so he could serve more tables during his shift, or 3) padding our bill with extra drinks or a food item we did not order. Then servers gripe and complain about getting low pay. Well, sorry, waiting tables wasn’t meant to be a long term career, so try for something better.

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