Why Restaurant Owners Need Video Surveillance Cameras

Surveillance experts see food as the next big industry to become camera-ready, as restaurateurs take advantage of falling prices for technology to combat rising levels of theft.

“Food service is one of our most booming industries,” said Glenn Freiboth, president of GLC Enterprises, a surveillance equipment company based in Naperville, Ill. “It seems that the restaurant industry, they’re one of the most active businesses as far as needing something to protect themselves.”

While workers in other industries have been on camera for years like banks and convenience stores, in the food service industry, the big push began in the past few years as camera prices dropped to levels low enough restaurant owners to afford.

With the new digital equipment and an Internet connection, restaurant owners can monitor numerous sites from anywhere on the globe which in the end is relieving the stress that comes with have a food related business.

With the advent of high-speed telecommunications lines that restaurants are investing in to allow customers to pay with credit and debit cards the same Internet connections can be used for remote video surveillance, eliminating the need for out dated videocassette recorders and time consuming searches through tapes.

A basic camera can cost as little as $400 to $500 for a basic camera.

Mr. Freiboth sees the newest LukWerk video surveillance camera systems to be used in all of the businesses he installs cameras for. They are easy to install and have very advanced monitoring features.

A system used at an average McDonald’s restaurant might cost $10,000, down from about $17,000 as recently as five years ago, said Sam Naficy, president and chief executive of Los Angeles-based DTT Inc., one of the few surveillance companies specializing in food service.

Mr. Naficy said he’s seen his sales grow from $87,000 in 1999, his first year, to more than $10 million last year.

But by looking at the ceiling of many major restaurant brands shows that the use of cameras is growing.

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Most restaurants, especially chains, have some type of surveillance, especially at the back door and the drive-through, said Robert Grimes, founder of Accuvia, which tracks restaurant technology issues.

He estimates that about 25 percent of restaurants have cameras trained on the cash register, up from perhaps 3 percent five years ago.

In addition to deterring crime, cameras can be used to monitor food-handling procedures and employee skills to see if additional training is needed. The equipment can also be used to identify and correct inefficiencies in store and kitchen layouts. They can protect owners from phoney slip-and-fall claims as well as bill claim amount(i.e I handed you a $100 bill and got the wrong change back).

For Mr. Chapman and others, employees present a primary security threat.

“If we had 100 occasions with some sort of theft going on, 96 percent are from your own employees,” he said. “We’ve seen on camera people take boxes of product out of the refrigerator or freezer; boxes of chips, about 50 bags to a box; bread dough they take and bake at home.”

And he’s seen employees stealing money from the register.

With his surveillance system, each cash register transaction is coordinated with the camera’s digital recording system.

“If someone is doing something they shouldn’t be doing on the register we can go back and track that,” Mr. Chapman said.

Over the past five years, he’s fired “conservatively, maybe two dozen” workers who were caught by cameras. In one extreme case, he pushed for prosecution against the worker.

The target of employee theft is usually cash, said Michael Mershimer, a consultant who heads the National Restaurant Association’s loss prevention study group.

At Mr. Chapman’s stores, cameras are trained on each cash register. He also has cameras watching the exterior doors and the dining rooms. The restrooms are about the only place in the restaurants that are off limits.

Courts generally have held that workers should have a diminished expectation of privacy in public areas which would include the checkout area of a restaurant.

The possibility that cameras will be installed in inappropriate places, such as restrooms and locker rooms, has privacy experts concerned for fear the cameras could be used to spy on employees in the buff or having sex with other employees. 

Jeff Johnson, 38, owner of four Barbacoa Mexican restaurants in Salt Lake City, had frequent problems with the ADT surveillance systems he had installed in two of his locations at a cost of about $4,000 each. It took two workers several hours to drill holes, pull wires through the restaurant walls, and hang the cameras. “They were down quite a bit, and the features and video quality were not nearly as good [as LukWerks],” he says.

When a friend introduced him to Hartsfield, Johnson beta-tested a four-camera system in one of his other restaurants. “When you go back to look at the video,” he says, “it’s so easy to find the time stamp you want.” Johnson says he plans to switch all four of his restaurants to LukWerk.

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