Inside the Minds of Garnish-Stealing Bar Guests: An Investigation

maraschino cherries in a bowl

It was a day like any other. I was sitting at a restaurant in Brooklyn, minding my business, sipping a cocktail, when it happened: An arm slithered in my periphery across the bar to grab a piece of candied ginger from the bartender’s neatly prepped stash of garnishes. I turned to get a good look at the arm’s owner: a carefree twentysomething girl who clearly did not comprehend the gravity of her offense, even upon seeing the look of horror and disgust that I couldn’t have hidden if I tried—my boyfriend, a career bartender himself, was equally perturbed, but by no means shocked. Apparently this is a thing that people do (and do often), both sober and under the influence. What kind of person actually does this? I had to find out.

Taking from a garnish container at a bar is inappropriate on several different levels. For starters, from a health code standpoint alone, a guest’s hand in a jar or tray of something to be served to other guests is essentially compromised, meaning the contents of the container will need to be tossed and prepped all over again. Think of the earth! Secondly, these offenders seem to forget one of the tenets of our preschool curriculums: If it’s not yours, don’t take it without asking. And honestly, there are few things that grind a bartender’s gears more than garnish stealers. Just for fun, I asked a few bartenders around New York for some of their own firsthand accounts and how they handled things. I was not disappointed.

“Somebody took a grapefruit out of my garnish bowl and took a bite of it. Like a whole unpeeled grapefruit. And then she giggled and PUT HER spittle-covered MOUTHED-ON GRAPEFRUIT BACK IN THE BOWL. I was speechless…just looked her in the eye while tipping the entire bowl dramatically into the trash. Then I just put the empty bowl back in front of her. No words.” —Cat S.

“Just the other week I had a customer help himself to my cucumbers. Then he grabbed my olive jar. I just looked at him. I said did you ever see Pretty Woman? He said yes. I said, ‘This is not a buffet, Kit!’ Then I proceeded to dump it all in the trash. He told me I could have just given it to him. I said we charge for salad here.” —Paula L.

“People take whole oranges out of the garnish baskets, peel them and eat them. Music off, quick announcement to the rest of the bar guests that someone should buy the person a slice of pizza, round of applause, music back on.” —Matt F.

“I cut myself off as I was about to interject to someone grabbing a whole nutmeg and put in their mouth. I stopped mid sentence and walked slowly away thinking anything that might happen from here is just direct karma.” —Sofia P.

“Garnish snacking is egregious, sure. But these people don’t stop there. I once had someone straight up take a sip of a service well cocktail while I was prepping the garnish. They were so confused when I scolded them. ‘But I used my straw!’” —Scott S.

These are but a few of the mind-boggling submissions I received—it raises the question, “What is wrong with people?” So, I consulted with an actual psychologist on the matter.

“A quick and dirty behavioral analysis from my perspective would include a few factors,” says Scott Jones, an Ohio-based social psychologist who works as a customer behavior analyst for a restaurant group. “This person is probably not committing this small act of theft in a social vacuum. By that, I mean there is a good chance they are performing for a social audience (their friends, a date or a potential interest). They likely believe that flaunting presupposed rules in this manner will garner them social currency.”

Jones goes on to cite authority issues as another possibility—a “middle finger to establishment.” Kleptomania is also another explanation, and lastly, a general lack of respect. Jones elaborates on the latter: “These people do not even begin to consider the consequences of what they’re doing because the thought of it being wrong has not crossed their minds. They are either entitled, ignorant or unaware. They don’t consider the impact of their behavior on others, and thus don’t see the behavior as rule breaking to begin with, but closer to taking what is either already theirs or what they perceive themselves as deserving.”

Tyler Zielinski, bar consultant and former creative director at Lawrence Park in Hudson, N.Y., and a graduate of Lesley University’s Holistic Psychology program, sums it up well: “People who take garnishes without consent—these garnish stealers, as we know them as—clearly have not learned boundaries, which likely indicates a lack of emotional intelligence.”

Boundaries, according to Zielinski, are possibly best defined using modern psychologist Brené Brown’s approach. “[It’s] what’s okay versus not okay, and a lack of boundaries leaves way for a lack of empathy and compassion. A human’s ability to be empathic correlates with their emotional and social development, which by the time humans are able to drink should be almost, if not fully, developed (depending on the person).”

Bartender and psychology student Stevie D. Gray notes that while it’s usually difficult to pinpoint the motive, the most that can be done is to just treat the situation as a teachable moment. “Be it entitlement, lack of boundaries, misdirected playfulness or just plain oblivious disregard, communicating that you have no idea where their hands have been and that these things go in other people’s drinks helps people to keep their hands to themselves in the future. So whatever their reason for doing it, I like to be the clear and direct reason they stop doing it moving forward. A lot of people are generally receptive when it’s explained.”

It’s rather satisfying to have an explanation for this gross phenomenon; unfortunately, though, there’s not much of an end in sight for bartenders in New York (or anywhere else, really). Aside from signs or placing garnishes out of guests’ reach, little can be done to get the fruit snatchers to change their ways.

Amber Elliot, a bartender in Manhattan, sheds some light on the reality of the situation from her side of the bar: “I think the whole ‘eating out of the garnish tray’ thing is a telltale sign of a guest who has no self awareness or consideration. It’s the same type of people who stand in the service station to order drinks, or those guests who overstay their welcome at a table or bar. They think that because they’re paying, the can do what they want. Or they don’t even think at all or can’t take a hint. Yet we work in the service industry, so it’s frowned upon when we frown upon this kind of behavior. It’s fighting a losing battle.”

If this person is you, please reconsider your life choices. And in the meantime, know that you’ve likely given someone out there an entertaining (and enraging) story to tell.