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Restaurant cameras keep tabs on workers, customers

Dallas Morning News | February 18, 2007  

IRVING, Texas From his compact office next to boxes of jalapenos and banana peppers, Tom Chapman can watch nearly every move his workers make.

An information technology wonk turned restaurateur, Chapman has installed digital cameras at his eight Subway restaurants. He sees himself more as a smart businessman than as "Big Brother."

And while some privacy advocates may grimace, growing numbers of restaurateurs today are viewing things through the same lens.

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 Michael Dunteman, president of EZ-Toyz, a wholesaler of surveillance equipment based in Carol Stream, 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 think banks and convenience stores in food service, the big push began in the past few years as camera prices dropped to levels low enough for margin-sensitive restaurateurs to bite. The timing coincides with the use of high-speed telecommunications lines that restaurants are investing in to allow customers to pay with credit and debit cards. The same lines can be used for remote video surveillance, eliminating the need for clunky videocassette recorders and labor-intensive searches through tapes.

With the new digital equipment and an Internet connection, restaurant owners can monitor numerous sites from anywhere on the globe.

In some cases, systems cost as little as $500 for a basic camera.

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.

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

He attributes his company's early success to interest from franchisees of McDonald's Inc. He's since expanded to other brands including Subway, where he is the preferred contractor, according to a spokesman for the chain's purchasing arm.

Many restaurant companies are reluctant to be interviewed about security. McDonald's does not "discuss or disclose information about security in our restaurants," a spokesman said. A spokesman for Wendy's also declined comment.

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

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 bogus slip-and-fall claims.

For 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 steal from the register. With his surveillance system, including equipment from DTT, 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," Chapman said.

Over the past five years, he's fired "conservatively, maybe two dozen" workers who were caught by cameras. In one severe case, he pushed for prosecution.

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

"It's not that they want to steal chicken nuggets," he said.

At 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. They also suggest cameras can be intrusive.

"It's not a privacy violation if you're standing behind the counter where everyone can see you," said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J. "But it's not a pleasant way to work."

Chapman of Subway said he's never had "one employee come up to me and complain about being on camera."

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