Bernard McDonagh's party gave a false contact number when booking at Bella Ciao meaning Tyrone was unable to reach them

With the benefit of hindsight, Tyrone Rees and his wife Domenica realise they both had a funny feeling about the party of eight who booked lunch at their family-run Italian restaurant last month.

‘It was quite an expensive order – king prawns and T-bone and fillet steaks, which they even ordered for the kids,’ Tyrone recalls. ‘I’m talking about a five-year-old with a 16oz steak here. It seemed a bit excessive.’

The reason for their extravagant approach to the menu soon became clear however. It seems the family had no intention of paying for any of it. While one female member of the party stepped forward to settle the £329 bill, the rest of her group hurriedly departed. And then her credit card was declined.

Bernard McDonagh's party gave a false contact number when booking at Bella Ciao meaning Tyrone was unable to reach them

Bernard McDonagh’s party gave a false contact number when booking at Bella Ciao meaning Tyrone was unable to reach them

Bella Ciao was not the only victim of McDonagh's party, but one of five restaurants within a 30-mile radius in South Wales

Bella Ciao was not the only victim of McDonagh’s party, but one of five restaurants within a 30-mile radius in South Wales

‘She then said she would go and get another card from her husband, leaving her son as ‘proof’ she was coming back,’ Tyrone recalls. ‘But no more than a minute later her son received a call. He told me he was going to fetch it from her, then promptly went to the door and ran as fast as his legs could carry him.’

His departure left 60-year-old Tyrone and his wife to foot the chunky bill.

It is little consolation to know that they are not alone, but just one of five restaurants within a 30-mile radius in South Wales which fell prey to the same group. Each time they arrived en masse in a blue van, ordered the most expensive dishes on the menu – typically steaks – and then fled after the bill arrived.

For many years Tyrone ran a restaurant with Domenica in Palermo, Sicily, before moving to the UK to open Bella Ciao in Port Talbot in 2022. Two months ago, they opened a second branch in Swansea, which had only been in business for two weeks when the party of eight came in

For many years Tyrone ran a restaurant with Domenica in Palermo, Sicily, before moving to the UK to open Bella Ciao in Port Talbot in 2022. Two months ago, they opened a second branch in Swansea, which had only been in business for two weeks when the party of eight came in

Ann McDonagh's card was declined, so she left to get another one from her husband. She left her son behind as proof that she would return, but minutes later he ran out of the door

Ann McDonagh’s card was declined, so she left to get another one from her husband. She left her son behind as proof that she would return, but minutes later he ran out of the door 

The scam is called ‘Dine and Dash’, or what we used to call ‘doing a runner’ without paying for what you consumed. While it’s not a new phenomenon, restauranteurs and publicans are in no doubt it’s hugely on the rise.

As is Hampshire Police and Crime Commissioner Donna Jones, who is campaigning for tough penalties for the guilty after being contacted by a number of local businesses convinced it’s doing damage to an industry already facing challenges in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the cost of living crisis.

Calling it ‘blatant theft’, Jones believes the ‘shameful’ crime has not always been taken as seriously as it should.

The party of eight ordered multiple soft drinks each, prawns and steaks - even for the children - before leaving without footing the £329 bill

The party of eight ordered multiple soft drinks each, prawns and steaks – even for the children – before leaving without footing the £329 bill

McDonagh, 41, and wife Ann, 39 – the group's ringleaders – pleaded guilty at Swansea Crown Court to racking up £1,168 worth of unpaid restaurant bills

McDonagh, 41, and wife Ann, 39 – the group’s ringleaders – pleaded guilty at Swansea Crown Court to racking up £1,168 worth of unpaid restaurant bills

‘Crimes fall largely into three categories: violent, dishonest and sexual – and if you are ordering a three-course dinner and wine, and then simply getting up and walking out, then this is a clearly a crime of dishonesty,’ she says. ‘First of all police forces need to prioritise the offence, and when it’s appropriate to do so, these people need to be named and shamed. They are affecting people’s livelihoods.’

Statistics are hard to come by, which is a problem in itself. In 2018, a survey revealed one in 20 diners claim to have walked out of a restaurant without settling their bill, while that same year Metropolitan Police recorded 12,610 incidents of citizens making off without paying. Yet those in the hospitality industry believe the numbers have risen exponentially since then.

Tyrone does not need to be told about the threat to his living – that £329 bill left a massive dent in his family-run restaurant’s profits. ‘Some people say ‘well yes it’s £329, at least it’s not £3,000′, but that’s not the point,’ he says. ‘Everyone knows that margins are so tight in hospitality. Every pound we don’t make is a pound less we have for ourselves and our staff who all work so hard.’

For many years Tyrone ran a restaurant with Domenica in Palermo, Sicily, before moving to the UK to open Bella Ciao in Port Talbot in 2022.

Two months ago, they opened a second branch in Swansea, which had only been in business for two weeks when the party of eight came in. ‘They didn’t hold back,’ Tyrone says. ‘They didn’t drink alcohol, but they ordered multiple bottles of cola, three each at a time, then the prawns and steaks and up to two puddings each.’

Then off they went into the sunset, at which point Tyrone tried to ring the family, only to find they had given a false contact number when booking.

When he placed a post on Facebook appealing for the group to return, Tyrone found himself inundated with stories from other restaurant owners sharing their own tales of woe, as well as locals naming who they believed were the culprits.

‘People were in touch from all over the UK,’ he says. ‘It made me realise the extent of the problem. I was shocked by the level of dishonesty out there – although we also got lots of bookings from people who took pity on us after what had happened.’

He also managed to identify those responsible. Last week Bernard McDonagh, 41, and wife Ann McDonagh, 39 – the group’s ringleaders – pleaded guilty at Swansea Crown Court to racking up £1,168 worth of unpaid restaurant bills. They are to be sentenced later this month.

Hundreds of miles away in Scotland, landlady Janie Seaton has had similar experiences with Dine and Dash culprits.

Janie, 52, has owned The Black Bull, a popular pub and hotel in Moffat, Dumfriesshire, since 2018, and first came across Dine and Dashers two years later.

Janie, 52, has owned The Black Bull, a popular pub and hotel in Moffat, Dumfriesshire, since 2018, and first came across Dine and Dashers two years later

Janie, 52, has owned The Black Bull, a popular pub and hotel in Moffat, Dumfriesshire, since 2018, and first came across Dine and Dashers two years later

Janie said the worst Dine and Dash incident occurred at the start of March this year, when a table of seven aggressively tried to argue their way out of a £400 bill

Janie said the worst Dine and Dash incident occurred at the start of March this year, when a table of seven aggressively tried to argue their way out of a £400 bill

‘Two very respectable looking ladies in their mid-sixties, both well-dressed and elegant, ordered two large glasses of wine and some nibbles, and then just nonchalantly walked away – although not before they had heckled and humiliated me for reasons I honestly don’t understand,’ she recalls. ‘The bill was only £30 but it really affected me – I just hadn’t seen it coming. I remember going into the kitchen and crying as I felt so humiliated and shocked by such terrible behaviour from two seemingly respectable human beings.’

She’s had a ‘handful’ of similar incidents since, but says by far the worst occurred at the start of March this year, when a table of seven aggressively tried to argue their way out of a £400 bill.

It was the first Saturday her seasonal business had re-opened since the end of November. The party – all respectable looking and, Janie believes, businessmen – proved to be slightly difficult customers from the start, and created a fuss when two meals were wrongly delivered.

‘I took all their mains off the bill as a gesture of goodwill, even though the meals were all good quality,’ she recalls. ‘At this point they were left with £300 from the original £400 bill, but I heard one of the ringleaders say ‘I don’t think we’re going to be paying for this’ to our poor 24-year-old restaurant manager.’

Kerry Ann Stevens, a solicitor, was booted out of the legal profession by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority after being convicted of two counts of fraud by false representation, both related to dine and dash incidents

Kerry Ann Stevens, a solicitor, was booted out of the legal profession by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority after being convicted of two counts of fraud by false representation, both related to dine and dash incidents

At this point Janie went over and asked what the problem was, to be told by the same man that he wouldn’t pay as the experience hadn’t ‘given them any uplift’.

‘I couldn’t believe my ears,’ she recalls. ‘I pointed out that even if they didn’t like their main courses they had consumed a lot of starters and drinks, and I had made a big gesture already. He still refused point blank to pay. None of the group bar one were even slightly perturbed that all this was being witnessed by all the staff either.’

With the exception of one member of the group, who paid his share, the men continued to refuse to pay, even when Janie said she would call the police.

‘They then mocked me and told me I was faking it so I handed the phone to one of them to prove I had dialled 999 – at which point he even argued with the call handler,’ she recalls. ‘They were so arrogant.’

Kerry Ann Stevens also allegedly attempted to leave The Castle Inn, a 17th century family-run pub in the Essex village of Little Wakering – without paying her £62.20 bill – only to be stopped by local customers who barred her way until the police arrived

Kerry Ann Stevens also allegedly attempted to leave The Castle Inn, a 17th century family-run pub in the Essex village of Little Wakering – without paying her £62.20 bill – only to be stopped by local customers who barred her way until the police arrived

In the event, police arrived and – armed with information from Janie – found the men at their hotel, from where they escorted them back to The Black Bull one by one and made them pay up. ‘They spoke with the six and explained the legal situation and told me they were now going to pay,’ she says. ‘It was a very satisfying moment handing them each the chip and pin machine.’

Even though she got her money in the end, Janie is still smarting from the injustice of it all. ‘We have to work so hard to make that £300, and they think they can just waltz off without a backwards glance,’ she says. ‘My parents brought me up to be honest, so I don’t understand it. I think a lot of people do it for the thrill, or to get one over on someone.’

That certainly seems to be a theme on one thread on the social media forum Reddit, in which some users confide their stories of being Dine and Dash perpetrators.

Among them is a now-repentant former Dine and Dasher who confides that he ‘got a rush’ from fleeing restaurants and leaving a bill behind. Until, that is, he did it at a local sushi restaurant and found out through a mutual friend on a social media site that the waitress was facing the sack by her boss if it happened on her watch again.

‘I felt like a piece of sh*t,’ he writes.

He went back to pay and understandably was told never to darken the doors of the restaurant again.

Another user confides that he and a friend have tried all manner of tricks over the years to wriggle out of paying the full amount, including seating themselves at separate tables, ordering one cheap meal and one expensive meal and then surreptitiously swapping the paper bills over at the end of both.

‘The one who’s had the expensive meal, but the cheaper bill pays up, then the person who’d had the cheaper meal but got the expensive bill would query it and would only have to pay the cheaper bill too,’ he says. ‘Saved us a ton. We did it for years.’

In January 2021, Stevens ordered a £43.47 takeaway via the mobile app Just Eat, but then shut the door on the delivery driver without paying. The bill was then deducted from the driver's wages. A month later, she racked up a £60.91 bill at a Harvester restaurant in Rayleigh, Essex, but left without paying

In January 2021, Stevens ordered a £43.47 takeaway via the mobile app Just Eat, but then shut the door on the delivery driver without paying. The bill was then deducted from the driver’s wages. A month later, she racked up a £60.91 bill at a Harvester restaurant in Rayleigh, Essex, but left without paying

There’s no doubt the industry attracts serial offenders. Last month a solicitor called Kerry Ann Stevens was booted out of the legal profession by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority after being convicted at Suffolk Magistrates Court in 2022 of two counts of fraud by false representation, both related to Dine and Dash incidents.

The court heard that in January 2021, Stevens ordered a £43.47 takeaway via the mobile app Just Eat, but then shut the door on the delivery driver without paying. The bill was then deducted from the driver’s wages. A month later, she racked up a £60.91 bill at a Harvester restaurant in Rayleigh, Essex, but left without paying.

Striking her off as a solicitor, the tribunal panel found that Stevens’ offences were ‘premeditated and deliberate’. Apparently unrepentant, she recently allegedly attempted to leave The Castle Inn, a 17th century family-run pub in the Essex village of Little Wakering – without paying her £62.20 bill – only to be stopped by local customers who barred her way until the police arrived.

‘The woman apparently tried to get out of the toilet window but there are bars up,’ landlord Len Told recalled. The police are looking into the incident.

Such community spirit – also on show among those who identified the Dine and Dashers in Swansea – is applauded by Ms Jones, who believes that while police need to clamp down on perpetrators, locals also need to do their bit to support businesses in the fight.

‘I would also encourage communities to work together – you have schemes like Pubwatch where local publicans share details of people trying to deal drugs or behaving badly. I’d like to see a similar thing with this, where they are sharing faces and names among the local businesses and community,’ she says.

‘Either way, if it’s not dealt with properly then ultimately we are going to move towards a situation where we have to pay in advance. That’s a great pity for everyone – but it certainly can’t go on as we are as it is incredibly unfair.’

There is one other solution, as businessman Trond Rornes points out. He runs a company called CardsSafe Ltd, which provides units which can safely store credit cards: the restauranteur takes the card off the customer on arrival and issues them a unique key to the secure individual unit in which its stored. When the customer is ready to pay the bill, staff members can then remove the card from the unit and complete the transaction.

Their units are now used by more than 5,000 outlets in the UK, from pubs to golf courses, hotels to cricket grounds and the National Gallery. The set-up fee is £39.95 and it then costs £9.95 per month.

‘We’ve received a significant increase in enquiries relating to Dine and Dash in recent months,’ Trond says. ‘Most recently, a chain restaurant business with 43 venues took on our system because of far too many cases of customers making off without payment.’

Of course, it’s not only financial loss that Dine and Dashers inflict on a business.

‘Losing money is a big problem, but it’s what lies behind it too,’ Tyrone says. ‘When people think they can come in, drink and eat what they like, then walk away you feel violated. It’s just a horrible thing to do.’

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