Stop! Lunch Thief!

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

It was the late 1980s and Dena Price had bought herself a sub sandwich: half to eat right away, half to save. (She was on a budget, after all.) The legal secretary dug into the company fridge on Day Two to retrieve her lunch. Lo and behold, her half of a sub was now a quarter of a sub.

Later, one of the attorneys at the firm told her how good her sandwich had been. Hungry and making very little money, Price demanded that he pay up. He refused. And so here we are, more than a decade later, and Price is still upset about it. But she's just one among a huge population of missing-lunch victims who are angry, vengeful (how many of you have threatened to put Ex-Lax in the next sandwich you leave in the office fridge?) and now carrying insulated bags to keep the eats at their desks.

There are scads of people who are frustrated by lunchtime bandits -- the thieves of half-eaten subs, cold pizza or that scrumptious pasta dish just waiting to be chowed down. We all have ways of dealing with scroungers. We write our names on sandwich wraps and yogurts. We double-knot our grocery bag filled with last night's leftovers. We hide our pizza at the back of the nasty, smelly, do-you-think-this-is-your-college-dorm fridge. In the case of one small business in Arlington, an actual camera was installed near the employee refrigerator to find out who was snatching everyone's meals.

The office lunch is a sacred thing: Go near my salad and I'll stick you with this spork! But of course the food bandits justify their actions. Sure, I ate that last apple, but hey, I was at work late and starving! I'll replace it. Really.

But that justification really doesn't work when the bandits are caught in the act. That's just what happened to one pizza thief at a government consulting firm in Arlington last year. The co-worker detective asked that her name not be used (she really doesn't want to make the thief feel even worse). But she couldn't help but crow about her big coup.

She knew one thing: The bandit only liked pizza. Apples, yogurt or a good turkey sandwich would all be safe. But pizza? Gone within the workday. She put signs on the fridge: "Ask your boss for a raise if you can't afford your own food!" And on her pizza container: "If you eat this, I promise to hunt you down -- stop stealing."

Then, one Friday night when she was cursing the world for still being at work at 8 p.m., she heard the refrigerator door open. She waited until she heard a pizza box open, then sprinted for the kitchen. "I stood in the doorway, blocking his escape. I could see a piece of pizza hidden in his hand and tried to strike up a conversation with him. The normally talkative office mate suddenly lacked words with a mouth full of pizza and knowledge that he was busted," she said. "I thought the fact that he knew that I knew was enough for the time being. I let him escape and grinned a triumphant smile."

On her way home, the pizza thief called her on her cell phone and apologized. The pizza has been safe in the company fridge since then.

At least he apologized. Most lunch stealers seem to make a habit out of grabbing whatever's in the communal fridge. They feel they deserve it.

"People have lost basic courtesy skills because everything has been given to them," said Shawna Schuh, an etiquette expert based in Portland, Ore. "People don't get that the world doesn't revolve around them." And for someone like a partner at a law firm, she said, the world actually does revolve around them. They are supported by everyone else. So perhaps that's why a paralegal at a major Washington law firm caught a partner stealing her tuna fish sandwich one day.

There had been a series of lunch thefts at the firm. Of course, the one day when she was too busy to eat until 3 p.m., she found her sandwich missing. "There had been some rumbling that one of the partners in the firm was the culprit," said Victoria, who has since left the legal world to work at a nonprofit. She followed that rumbling to the partner's empty office only to find the remains of her sandwich in his trash can.

"This is a guy who was making unbelievable amounts of money and was stealing sandwiches from support staff," she said. "I couldn't tell my managing partner how I knew who stole my sandwich because I probably wasn't supposed to be examining trash bins for evidence."

So from then on, she put a note in her sandwiches saying that she knew he was the thief. She was never forced to skip lunch again.

Some workers have come up with pretty ingenious ways to hang on to their food. One thing someone in this city has learned: Never mess with Kelly Pike's cream cheese.

Pike, an assistant director of publications for a foundation in the District, once had her cream cheese swiped. Once. The container was still in the office kitchen but empty, and that day, her nicely toasted bagel had to be eaten plain.

She decided to protect her next package of cream cheese with a note inside the lid. It went something like this: "If you don't stop eating my cream cheese out of consideration, perhaps you should consider sanitation as a reason. I licked both the cream cheese and the knife I used to cut it."

Gross, she admits. But effective. Her cream cheese has been safe ever since.

Join Amy on Tuesday at washingtonpost.com from 11 a.m. to noon to discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her with your column ideas atlifeatwork@washpost.com.

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