It had a touch of a fairy tale about it: in his bid to woo his princess, a penniless young man resorts to disguising himself as a rich noble. Over a fortnight, Latvian film student Janis Nords took his girlfriend to some of the top restaurants in London, wining and dining her before walking out without paying the bill.
Sadly for this princess, however, there was no happy ending. Nords was arrested and banned from entering central London for a year, after pleading guilty to nine counts of not paying for goods and services amounting to more than £5,800 in unpaid restaurant bills. City of Westminster magistrates' court also ordered the 27-year-old to return to court on 14 December with a plan for repaying the money he owed.
Nords's case came to prominence after L'Autre Pied in Marylebone fell victim to his scam when he dined at the Michelin-starred restaurant, ordering two bottles of Champagne and food, racking up a bill of £572. Before eating their desserts, the pair asked for their coats to go outside for a cigarette but never returned. CCTV footage of Nords and his dining companion was then released to the press, with the case making headlines across the national media.
Following the story, it emerged that Nords had targeted several other high-end restaurants (see above) but the spree came to an abrupt end when he was finally arrested at L'Oranger in St James, after being detained by staff when attempting to leave without paying a bill worth £1,022. He has subsequently been banned from entering six of London's most exclusive postcodes for 12 months.
While the huge amount of publicity the case attracted has undoubtedly raised awareness among restaurateurs and the public alike, the question remains of what lesson operators can learn from it? Should diners no longer be allowed to go out for cigarette breaks in between courses? Should they be required to hand over their credit cards before going out to smoke? Or will restaurants have to invest in bouncers guarding the entrance to ensure nobody makes off without paying?
According to David Moore, owner of L'Autre Pied and Pied à Terre, none of the above is practical. "We are in the hospitality trade and have to make customers feel welcome," he said. "In 19 years of trading, we have had one diner do this so changing our policy is probably not the right response. What we'll have to do is be more vigilant. If we're worried about a customer doing a runner, we'll discreetly place a waiter by the door to prevent this."
This was echoed by Paul Singer, managing director of the London Fine Dining Group, which owns L'Oranger, who said that "in the interest of decorum it would simply not be cricket" to ask diners for their credit cards before the end of their meal.
"What we need to address is staff training, which in many instances could prevent this type of loss by learning to spot fraud warning signs," he advised.
Pascal Aussignac, co-owner of Le Cercle, agreed: "You have to make your team more aware and make sure that they liaise with each other. What's really useful is CCTV - without the footage from L'Autre Pied this case would not have been resolved so quickly."
While the high-profile nature and speedy conclusion of Nords's case will hopefully serve as a deterrent rather than an inspiration to potential scammers out there, the lesson for operators seems to be vigilance. Train your staff to spot dubious customers, to communicate with each other and to handle a suspicious situation with care.
â- Glasshouse, Kew, south-west London - £349
â- Hélène Darroze restaurant at the Connaught hotel - £965.40
â- Pearl at the Renaissance Chancery Court hotel - £570
â- Le Cercle, Chelsea - £400
How to stop customers leaving without paying
â- Be vigilant. If you are suspicious of a customer subtly place a waiter by the door.
â- Train staff. Ensure they can spot the early warning signs.
â- Encourage communication. Make sure your team alert each other to suspicious customers.
â- Install CCTV. Should the worst happen at least you will have evidence.