TAMPA — As the second-generation owner of Rick’s on the River, Ken Brackins, who grew up at the restaurant, said it is easy to spot someone who plans to “dine and dash,” the act of leaving without paying.
They typically plan a quick getaway in advance — parking near the lot exit and sitting close to the exit of the establishment on the Hillsborough River, just north of downtown Tampa.
But, even then, it’s difficult for the staff to keep a constant eye on potential thieves, especially when busy.
So, two years ago, Brackins installed 16 security cameras outside the restaurant and, on Facebook, began posting closeup footage that he says shows diners dashing.
He has two missions in doing so: to get help identifying the alleged thief and to deter others from ripping off his business.
“You’re going to get caught,” Brackins said. “And then you are going to pay me.”
Brackins also wants to make such people famous. Or infamous.
The deterrent system has morphed over the past two years to its current iteration, which has Brackins’ staff edit the security video into short films of sorts meant to embarrass the accused.
The latest video shows an employee arguing in the parking lot with a woman who Brackins said skipped out on a beer tab. It’s set to circus music and includes a closeup of her face and license plate of the car that she is driving, plus a caption explaining what happened.
“The latest dine and dasher spent her beer money on a fancy late model Mercedes,” it says. “She refused to pay her entire tab because she said the wind blew over her pitcher of beer. There were only a few ounces of beer on the deck. True story.”
The video, posted on Aug. 21, has nearly 9,000 views and hundreds of comments, most either celebrating Brackins’ method or shaming the customer.
“Just goes to show that you can drive a nice car and still have no class,” reads one.
“The world needs more shame and accountability,” reads another.
The tabs for those who allegedly dined and dashed have been as high as a few hundred dollars, Brackins said. But he does not think that’s enough to get the police involved for a crime that can be a second-degree misdemeanor through a third-degree felony. “They have a lot to do. I don’t want to bother them for this.”
The Mercedes woman drove off and has yet to pay.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“I think she is sticking to her story that it wasn’t really a dine and dash and didn’t owe the tab,” Brackins said.
But, overall, the system seems to be working.
Since its implementation, the other dozen people whom he claims the cameras caught dashing have paid, usually within 48 hours of the post.
“But I would say that 100% of them that come back and pay, don’t tip,” Brackins said. “And they also want to call in a payment with a credit card. But I make them come in. They always seem to have an excuse for why they forgot to pay.”
Sometimes, the person learns about the online footage and reaches out to the restaurant.
Other times, someone calls the restaurant with the person’s name.
“We’ve had a family member call us and turn them in,” Brackins said. “I’d guess they are embarrassed.” That person later paid.
The public helps too, by sharing the Facebook posts.
An April post, shared over 400 times, called out two women for allegedly consuming “6 long Island iced teas, and some sandwiches.” They returned and paid, according to another post set to the song “Bad Boys,” which was the theme song of the show “Cops.”
The recent alleged dine-and-dash attempt by the Mercedes driver inspired Brackins to have the footage edited into comedic short films, which will be the new normal.
And those will live on Facebook in perpetuity, he said.
“I have people call and be like, ‘Hey, I paid, can you take it down?’ They get very angry. They say they are going to sue me. They are not coming down. That’s the consequences of it. It’s like the modern Scarlet Letter.”