Colleen Kelley was pumping gas at the 7-Eleven across from Silly’s, her restaurant on Washington Avenue in Portland, when she noticed three people walking by carrying a Silly’s coffee mug, a sangria mug, and a lunch box with the Silly’s logo.

Kelley called the restaurant, and her staff confirmed the items had been stolen. After filling her tank, she drove up Cumberland Avenue and right onto the sidewalk in front of the culprits. Kelley rolled down her window and said “Hello, my name is Colleen Kelley and I own Silly’s. Please give me back the things you have stolen from me. Never step foot in my restaurant again or I will call the police, because you are terrible people.”

Silly’s in Portland has lost items small (mugs, games) and suprisingly large (and heavy – a water fountain) to theft. Silly’s is not alone.

Her staff still talks about the incident.

These Silly’s customers are far from the only diners looking for a five-fingered discount. Earlier this month, someone lifted a painting of Crater Lake off the wall at the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club. Bar owner Briana Volk pleaded with the thief to return the painting, which had great sentimental value, no questions asked. As of press time, there was no sign the thief was feeling any remorse.

Frustrated restaurateurs battle theft in a variety of ways, from buying cheaper tableware at a discount supplier in Boston to nailing or gluing items down. Just why ordinary diners who otherwise consider themselves good people steal from restaurants is a puzzle, especially when the items they’re pirating are often inexpensive knickknacks or huge and hard to carry out the door.

“Everything that isn’t nailed down is fair game,” observed Clark Frasier, co-owner of M.C. Perkins Cove in Ogunquit and former co-owner of Arrows, where waiters were trained to get the mother-of-pearl caviar spoons off the table quickly every night, lest they disappear into someone’s pocket or purse.

NO RELIEF FOR RESTROOMS

At DiMillo’s on the Water in Portland, customers steal steak knives, souffle cups, and nautical decorations from buffets. A chef who owns several Maine restaurants says pictures have been removed from their frames. And someone once stole a large ficus tree – like Volk’s painting, a gift from a parent – at one of his openings.

When Rhum, Portland’s first tiki bar, closed last year, the owners said one factor (a lesser one, but still a factor) was theft. Customers had stolen about $10,000 worth of the restaurant’s custom-made tiki mugs.

The ladies’ restroom at the Good Table in Cape Elizabeth is a pilferer’s paradise, filled with old books, hats and other items that owner Lisa Kostopoulos has discovered at antique stores. The thing is, if you admire one of these found treasures out loud, Kostopoulos is likely to tell you to keep it – as long as you bring her a replacement.

But the plunder doesn’t stop there.

Other things that have disappeared from the Good Table: two beautiful hanging baskets from the front porch. A big valentine painting that Kostopoulos used to put on the front door every Valentine’s Day. A chicken doorstop. Metal flying pigs that lived in the hallway and on the porch. “We even found one (pig) tucked in a bag, waiting to be taken, under one of the church pews on the front porch,” Kostopoulos said.

When it comes to temptation, probably no place compares to Silly’s, which is decorated in bright colors, filled with amusements, and looks more like a funhouse than a restaurant. Oh sure, Kelley has lost her share of silverware, glasses and such – thousands’ worth, she says.

Lisa Kostopoulos, owner of the Good Table Restaurant in Cape Elizabeth, decorates the ladies room with treasures like old books and hats discovered at antique stores – and has found that they’re prone to being pinched. She’s also lost hanging baskets, a chicken doorstop and a painting. Staff photo by Gordon Chibroski

“Every single time USM starts, I run out of silverware and plates,” Kelley said. “Everyone comes and outfits their apartment.”

But the losses that are most painful are the ones that involve items she’s picked out herself for the restaurant, to give it character, or the ones that do big damage to her bottom line, like the water fountain that was stolen from the patio.

“Truthfully, when someone steals something that means something to you, that you have chosen carefully for others to enjoy, a little piece of your faith in humanity dies,” Kelley said. “You know they don’t need it, they just want it because they are selfish or think for some odd reason they deserve it.”

Kelly has watched the games she buys at yard sales disappear so often she’s no longer replacing them. Birdhouses have been taken from the restaurant’s bathroom.

“They’ll rip it out of the wall and just leave the ripped plaster,” she said.

Also among the disappeared: a large vintage corkscrew display, collages, a vintage red chair, and the sandwich board that sits in front of the restaurant and lists the day’s specials.

Silly’s customers take the restaurant’s bumper sticker on vacation and take pictures of it all over the world – on all seven continents. They send the photos to Kelley, who posts them on the wall. Then the photos get stolen.

Kelley now puts items that she wants to protect out of reach, including beer signs she brought back from Germany and a tortilla with the image of Jesus on it that she inherited from the previous owners.

WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?

Why do ordinary people who normally pay attention to their moral compass suddenly turn into Bonnie and Clyde when they cross the threshold of a restaurant?

“Some people have no remorse and are plainly doing it for need or greed, and some people are emotionally or psychologically messed up and are doing it as a cry for help,” said Terry Shulman, director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding in Franklin, Michigan, outside of Detroit.

We caught Shulman as he was flying home from an appearance on the Dr. Oz show in New York, where he talked about shoplifting. Shulman is an attorney, licensed social worker and addiction therapist who was once a shoplifter himself. (He and his friends lifted menus from restaurants, he said.) Shulman doesn’t make excuses for the behavior – stealing isn’t right, and there ought to be consequences, he says – but when people are feeling out of control or overwhelmed, such as during times of stress or loss, “they can strike out and do these things.”

Restaurant thieves range from pranksters to thrill seekers, Shulman said.

“They may often feel that no one’s going to miss it,” he said. “They may feel entitled to it because they’re going to spend money at a restaurant, or they got bad service. They don’t think they’re hurting anybody, but often they are.”

Restaurateurs who have had things stolen speculate that customers take things because:

They feel entitled because a waiter was rude to them, or they think the food costs too much.

They want a souvenir of their evening.

They think the restaurant can afford the loss.

STOLEN MOMENTS

Despite the seriousness of the situation, some restaurant owners and employees can’t help but laugh when they look back on some of the sticky-fingered scenarios that have happened right under their noses.

Robyn Violette, general manager at Fore Street, still chuckles when she recalls the great Valentine’s Day caper. The restaurant, she explains, used to decorate with roses everywhere on Valentine’s Day. One customer spied a $60 vase filled with roses in the restroom and brought them back to his table to give to his date. A staff member confronted him.

The man’s date got huffy, protesting that he would never do such a thing, and demanded the server leave the roses where they belonged. The staffer replied: “Well, they actually belong in the men’s room.” “He looked mortified,” Violette recalled.

Frasier and his partner, Mark Gaier, also have a favorite story. The chefs used to display, on a table in the main dining room of Arrows, vegetables from their garden alongside items that meant something to them, such as some carved fish that had been made by old family friends.

One night a group of four “obviously quite wealthy” guests arrived in a Mercedes and enjoyed a fancy dinner, Frasier recalled. They were “laughing and carrying on,” then zoomed off in their luxury car. “Just as they were leaving, I realized ‘Oh the fish are gone,’ ” Frasier said.

Frasier decided to call and confront them.

“Of course, they were like, ‘How dare you?’ We are the lords on high, and so on and so on. ‘We’ll never come back,’ ” Frasier said. “And that night, the fish appeared on our stairs.”

Frasier and Gaier have developed a good sense of humor about theft, marveling at the things diners will lift. At M.C., diners regularly steal salt-and-pepper shakers, candleholders, and run-of-the-mill soap dispensers and tissue covers. “You ask yourself, ‘Who wants somebody’s Bed, Bath & Beyond soap dispensers?’ ” Frasier said.

Frasier notes that, while the topic does have its comic aspect, “underlying it is a misunderstanding amongst the public. When you go into a small family or group restaurant, these are individual people you’re stealing from. This is not Marriott worldwide.”

Violette says Fore Street (which also loses soap dispensers) has “gotten very conservative” about the decor, mostly because of all the blue ramekins that went missing during the restaurant’s first 10 years. The ramekins were made for the restaurant by a local artist; the same person made the rose vases. They cost just $3 each, Violette said, “but when you’re losing 600 of them in a year, it’s a lot of money.”

About a year ago, a professional photographer gave the restaurant a photo of its then-pastry chef. He was holding plums in his hands, and the photo focused in on his tattooed arms covered by the edge of his chef’s jacket. “It was just such an iconic picture,” Violette said. “It was beautiful.”

In two days, it was gone. The restaurant now glues all of its photographs and prints to the wall in the restrooms.

The most brazen theft at Fore Street is what Violette calls “the bench thing.” Someone stole a big, expensive handcrafted wooden bench from the waiting area. The host had gone for the night, and the bartender couldn’t see from his angle what happened. But apparently, just before closing, someone pulled up their car or truck, loaded the bench, and dashed away. The bench cost $700 to replace.

Though stealing from restaurants is nothing new, Shulman thinks it’s worse than ever. He describes an “epidemic of thievery” in our society. “I think it’s becoming normalized,” he said, blaming the economic crash of 2008 in part, because, he said, most of the people responsible were never brought to justice. Now we have porch pirates who steal our Amazon packages, ever more students cheating on tests, and people in high positions taking from others with no consequences.

“We’re not thinking through how these things affect people,” he said. “We’re living in an age where we’re getting more and more disengaged from the harm.”

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