The Enduring Appeal of Stealing Tiki Mugs
Tiki has always been about fantasy, but some drinkers go as far as taking home a souvenir from their boozy staycation inside a tiki bar.
Photo via Flickr user aloha75
Tiki bars and restaurants have always provided a form of escape for their customers. During the 1950s and 60s, in a time where traveling to a tropical destination was impractical for most Americans, tiki culture provided the ultimate fantasy. The elaborate decorations were even more intoxicating with the help of powerfully boozy cocktails and Polynesian-inspired food, which was a welcome change from mainstream American cuisine at the time. Many tiki bars also had no windows, allowing customers to experience an immediate staycation.
And as with every good vacation, people wanted a souvenir from their trip.
Old-school tikiphiles have been pilfering objects from tiki bars and restaurants for generations. Their five-finger discounts applied to practically anything that wasn't nailed to the floor. In the early 1960s, The Luau in Beverly Hills was ransacked by a group of college kids, who brazenly stole a six-foot tiki god from the premises.
But it's the everyday and low-profile theft of tiki mugs and glassware that's had the biggest impact on the industry and on pop culture. Nowadays, many of those mugs are easily found online or in garage sales across the country.
Modern tiki bar and restaurant owners are aware of this tradition of thievery and go to great lengths to ensure that their goods aren't stolen.
Demi Natoli, a bartender at Kreepy Tiki Bar & Lounge in Fort Lauderdale, is vigilantly aware of which guests have been served tiki mugs during service.
"The staff and I keep count of how many mugs we have out at a time," says Natoli. "When a customer sits at the bar, I'll usually end up having a conversation with them so that also helps me keep an eye out."
The types of mugs and glassware used by tiki bars can differ according to budgets, volume of customers, and an owner's personal taste. Mass-produced cups made of inexpensive material are common in many places. Other establishments might have custom-made, limited edition ceramic ones that command higher price tags.
"If you want a really good tiki artist to make a custom mug from your own design, it could require at least $3,000 in start-up costs just to create the mold," says Jeff "BeachBum" Berry, owner of Latitude 29 in New Orleans. "Then the cost of actually producing them and subsequently having [them] shipped could end up costing a business more than $30 per mug. We definitely want custom mugs that are distinctive and cool-looking, but if we're paying $30 per mug and order 20 of them to have people steal ten, that's still an enormous amount of money lost."
Having custom tiki mugs made can be so costly that ordering them in bulk is not something many bars can do.
"We have custom mugs that you will only find here at Kreepy Tiki," says Natoli. "But we only had about 100 made, so we don't have that many. When it comes to our budgeting, we definitely factor in the costs that might incur from having our cups stolen."
Natoli is not alone in the way she thinks. Small business owners and families, not large restaurant groups, run most tiki bars and restaurants. Profit margins are already extremely low in the restaurant and bar industry, so every expense must be factored into their bottom lines.
But the financial loss to a business owner is not something casual tiki thieves consider.
"To them, I think it would be nothing," says Madison* of New York City. "I don't think they'd notice it much if one glass disappeared."
She doesn't always go to a tiki bar expecting to steal; it's only after a few drinks when she'll start focusing on any glassware that catches her eye.
"I'll grab the empty cup, and then covertly clean the inside of it with a napkin under the table," says Madison. "Then I'll slyly put it in my handbag or shirt. Depending on who I'm with, sometimes I'll tell my tablemates what I'm doing and sometimes I won't, because not everyone approves. But for the most part, my friends won't care, and [one of them] might even be the watch person for me."
When asked why she particularly likes lifting tiki glassware, she says, "I think it's because I wouldn't be able to find them at a store … I know it's not the right thing to do. But I just always hope that the bar wouldn't notice it missing."
Katie* from Chicago is also a fan of tiki bars, and will occasionally leave at the end of the night with a cup stashed away. Or two.
"[At] this really popular tiki bar here in Chicago, I was told by a friend that the workers could search my purse on the way out," Katie says. "I was instructed … to bring a big purse, but not something too large that would look suspicious."
When Katie got to the bar that night, however, she realized her bag was too small for the cup she wanted. "Because my friend had a bigger bag, I made her steal it," she says. "But she stole one for herself, too, so she walked out with both hers and mine. Mine was a skull and hers was bamboo."
When asked what motivates her to steal, Katie admits, "Booze always helps."
To combat customer theft, some tiki bars have introduced policies that require customers to put down deposits. Steve Pang and his fellow cofounders of Otto's Shrunken Head in Manhattan knew that they wanted to put in place a deposit system before they even opened their doors 13 years ago.
At Otto's, patrons have the opportunity to pay a $5 deposit to have their drink come in tiki glassware. Once they've finished their cocktail, they can relinquish the $5 and keep the cup as a souvenir or get their money back. People who don't want to deal with the deposit system can have their tiki drinks served in a pint class.
The deposit structure has been a success for Otto's since day one, having kept theft to a minimum. It also ultimately makes the bar money, generating income from cup sales—even as the ones used in service break or get damaged through wear and tear.
"On a busy night, we can sell up to 40 mugs," says Pang.
He uses glassware that isn't custom-made, allowing Otto's the freedom to reorder as often as they like. "We're actually the biggest customer of our type of tiki glassware in all of New York, and in fact second or third in the country because we sell so many," Pang notes. For tiki bars with one-of-a-kind cups, the required deposit could become prohibitively expensive for guests.
Admittedly, tiki mug theft is more of a nuisance than an epidemic for today's bar owners. Every proprietor interviewed for this article had more tales about good customers who asked about purchasing cups than incidents of people getting caught red-handed.
"The people who get shitfaced and take a cup are just being drunk," says Pang. "True thieves are out to get something else."
*Names were changed to protect the tiki thieves' identities.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2015.