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Rampant Heater Theft Is the Latest Blow to Outdoor Dining

The rush to purchase heat lamps for outside seating has led to a lucrative secondary market — and a surge in stealing

Shot from below, an electric heat lamp glows under the awning of a restaurant at night. Viktor Zolotukhin/Shutterstock

On the Thursday before Valentine’s Day, in the early hours of the morning, McGillin’s Olde Ale House had its heat lamps stolen. In a time when outdoor heating can be the difference between a restaurant surviving the winter or shuttering for good, these lamps, as the thief likely knew, were more valuable than cash.

Footage from a nearby security camera showed a person slowly driving a white pickup truck down the street by McGillin’s outdoor dining setup, which is a block and a half away from the pub. It was after 1 a.m. and a cold, snowy night; the street was empty. Still, says McGillin’s owner Chris Mullins, who reviewed the camera footage, it looked like the culprit was taking their time to avoid attracting attention. After first doubling back on foot to cut the bike locks securing the heaters, the thief then pulled up in the pickup truck and threw four heaters in the back before driving off. Between the cost of the heat lamps and the propane gas fueling them, the pub lost about $1,500.

Heater theft has emerged as yet another problem plaguing restaurants and other businesses that are now reliant on outdoor service while the indoors is off limits, as a result of COVID-19 safety measures and restrictions. There have been thefts reported from Portland to Sacramento to Aurora, affecting ramen shops, breweries, tapas restaurants, and more. Restaurant operators are aware, thanks to talk within the industry, that this is happening across the country.

“If it’s not locked inside your building, it’s almost open game for criminals,” says Mullin, who knows of two other businesses near McGillin’s that have had their outdoor heaters stolen. “They’re just everywhere, and every restaurant needs some right now to survive.”

To restaurant operators, getting their heaters stolen right off the patio or street adds insult to injury during what has already been an excruciating year, caught between trying to survive COVID-19 as well as the financial devastation it has caused, without much help from the government.

“We were pretty gutted that … with restaurants being such a beleaguered industry during the pandemic, that people would even think to rob a restaurant,” says Ping Ho, owner of Detroit butcher shop and restaurant Marrow, which had six heat lamps and propane gas tanks stolen off its patio when the restaurant was closed for Thanksgiving. “It just felt like a double whammy, given everything that we had already been trying to get through.”

Many restaurants already had to buy heaters at inflated prices, given the increased demand as temperatures started dropping last fall. Marrow’s stolen property was valued at about $1,400. Saginaw Old Town Junction, a restaurant in Saginaw, Michigan, lost approximately $1,100 from the theft of three high-power heaters — two of which were almost brand new — on February 1. Insa, a Korean barbecue restaurant in Brooklyn, suffered a loss of $1,400 from the theft of eight heaters in late January.

But the financial burden extends beyond just the cost of the equipment itself. Left with fewer heaters, restaurants are unable to accommodate as many outdoor customers. For restaurants that are restricted from indoor service, or that don’t have robust takeout or delivery options, that essentially takes away the majority of revenue. Filing an insurance claim — which requires a police report — can help make up for some of the lost income and stolen property cost. But between the insurance policy’s deductible and the resulting increased premium next year, what’s recuperated is typically a fraction of the actual loss, or for some restaurants like McGillin’s, not even worth pursuing.

“That was extremely bad for us in terms of outdoor dining revenue, which is very critical,” says Insa chef and partner Yong Shin. Although outdoor dining came with its own challenges, including staff having to deal with cold weather and customers who often wouldn’t put their masks on around servers, “any revenue is critical for us at this point,” says Shin.

For Saginaw Old Town Junction owner Tony Krasinski, the prospect of losing out on business due to the lack of heaters was not an option. “If you don’t have some kind of heat, you’re not gonna have customers, and I’ve got to keep my employees working,” he says. “We all need money; we all need to survive.” Within a day, he had acquired two more heaters to replace the stolen ones, although he had to drive to a city 30 minutes away to buy them.

Even finding replacement heaters can be difficult. Many big-box retailers, like Walmart and Lowe’s, had completely sold out of heat lamps by early fall, remembers Ho. Mullins says he had to place orders months in advance with multiple sellers; even now, he says, there’s a limit to how many outdoor heaters customers can buy at his local Home Depot, like when stores were rationing toilet paper and paper towels earlier during the pandemic.

Naturally, a market has emerged for heat lamps with inflated prices on sites like Facebook Marketplace, eBay, and Craigslist, according to restaurant operators. “Those people probably saw, in my impression, an opportunity,” says Ho. “It’s kind of the same type of people who went out and bought as many face masks and hand sanitizers as possible … I feel like there were a lot of people who made money during the pandemic.”

Those secondary marketplaces may be the final destination for some of these stolen heaters, some operators conjecture. “They’re a hot commodity in high demand,” says Mullins. “You go up and down the street, you could probably sell them right off the back of your truck.”

The replacement heaters that restaurants do eventually purchase will have to be better secured in order to prevent repeats of the same crime. For some restaurants, that means buying stronger locks and chains. For others, that means storing the heaters inside at the end of service each night before bringing them back out the next day. But while that may be more secure, it’s also more work for teams that are already overextended.

“We’re chaining them up differently, we’re having to move them every night, we’re having to store them. We have to do more work so it doesn’t happen again,” says Krasinski.

One silver lining, some restaurant owners describe, is feeling the support of their communities, which have rallied behind them. After posting about the theft on social media and asking patrons to buy gift cards to help the restaurant, Marrow sold more gift cards than it ever had before in a given two-day period. Between those purchases and some donations, the restaurant was able to pay off the cost of three replacement heaters, which friends drove out to the suburbs to get for them after seeing a Facebook listing.

Mullins and Krasinski also expressed thanks for the support of friends, customers, and peers in the industry. Other restaurants even reached out to offer them the use of their outdoor heaters — a generous gesture that says a lot about the restaurant industry, per Mullin.

Whether or not any of their stolen heaters will ever be recovered remains to be seen, but for some restaurant operators, it’s better to accept that whatever happened happened, and to put the past behind them.

“This is just a reminder that there are people out there who are perhaps more desperate than us,” says Ho, generously. “By thinking about it that way, it made us feel a little better — that the person who stole from us probably needed it more.”

While unfortunate, the theft is just another example of the hand that restaurants have been dealt during the pandemic. “We’ve been through so much, but we’ll get through it,” says Mullins. “Within months, hopefully this will just be a nightmare that we’ve slipped past.”