When the Government decided to put a health warning on cigarette packets, perhaps it should have also added a warning to restaurateurs: "Warning: Allowing customers to smoke may cost you money."
Ironically, the introduction of the smoking ban in the UK has provided a unique opportunity for fraudsters to avoid paying a restaurant bill. The scam works like this: the customer arrives and orders food and wine as normal. Then, before the dessert course or coffee, he and his companion ask for their coats and say they are just popping outside for a quick cigarette. Dessert or coffee arrives, but the guests don't - as they have long since fled.
But who would fall for that, you might say? Well, nine London fine-dining restaurants did - in one month! The "mastermind" behind this series of losses, 27-year-old Latvian film student Janis Nords, was fortunately detained by our team at L'Oranger last week and subsequently arrested and charged - but not before he and his charming companion had consumed four bottles of vintage Champagne.
So what lessons can be learned from this story? Do restaurants now have to start taking credit cards before people sit down to eat - like the hotels do when you check in? Do we ban people leaving the restaurant to smoke unless they pay first? Do we employ a big burly bouncer to guard the guests and stop them escaping without paying?
Let's fast forward 10 years, if you will, to a typical West End restaurant…
Maître d' Good evening Sir, Madam. May I take your coats?
Guest Thank you.
Maître d' And what name is your reservation under, please?
Guest Biggs, "Basher".
Maître d' Thank you, Sir. And how will you be paying this evening?
Maître d' How will Sir be paying for the meal?
Guest I know I've been away for a while but don't you still pay after the meal?
Maître d' Yes Sir, but we have to know now how you intend to pay.
Maître d' In case you decide not to pay.
Guest I see. And do many people decide not to pay? Is the food that bad, here?!
Maître d' No, Sir. The food is marvellous.I should explain. A few years ago, people were allowed to eat first and pay later but then some people decided to eat and not pay so the Restaurant Association issued a rule which said people must pre-pay for their meals.
Guest But I haven't even seen the menu yet. I don't know what my meal is going to cost.
Maître d' Excuse me, Sir. There appear to be other guests arriving who I need to charge before they can be seated (turns to swipe new guests' card before they are whisked off to a table).
Guest So I have to pay now, then?
Maître d' Well it depends.
Guest Now I am confused. On what?
Maître d' On how you intend to pay.
Guest Cash, of course.
Maître d' I see. Well if you are having the à la carte menu, I will need £250 to be placed in this box, then. (Produces black metal box with a padlock, a fake-note-detecting felt pen and an ultra-violet wand to scan the £20 notes).
Guest This is ridiculous. I feel like a criminal! (Produces a wodge of £20 notes, a crumpled £5 note and five £1 coins).
Maître d' Thank you, Sir. (Scans each £20 note with the wand, draws a line with the fake-note-detecting pen on the £5 note and bites each £1 coin to check they are genuine). Please allow me to show you to your table…
OK, so it's a bit tongue in cheek but is this where we are heading?
Flashback to 2010. Reality. We value our customers and treat them with respect and trust. We want them to come away from our restaurants feeling like they have been treated like royalty, spoiled, entertained and merry.
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. Credit card companies already do this. If you, say, always buy your food in Asda, and then one day your card turns up at Harrods food hall with a request for authorisation for £1,000 of champagne, you can expect to be asked to speak to a nice lady at Barclaycard.
Typical past restaurant errors - not necessarily at London Fine Dining Group - include a male diner paying with a credit card in the name of a female cardholder, a guest saying his friend will pay and passing a mobile phone to a waiter for him to get credit card details over the phone, and a man leaving his, obviously fake, driving licence with the restaurant as "security" for him to return and pay later.
I suspect that Nords's notoriety will be short-lived and while it made for good tabloid news, frauds of this type should not be allowed to taint our industry.