Why your grandma swipes sugar packets
January 12th, 2012
04:00 PM ET
Share this on:

If you build it, they will come. And if you put it on the table, chances are someone is going to take it.

This includes, but is certainly not limited to, condiment sachets, paper napkins, individual coffee creamers, cracker packets, and just about anything else “not wrapped for individual sale” that can easily be stuffed into purses and/or pockets without a single qualm.

Whether it’s your best friend, grandma, crazy uncle or maybe even yourself doing the lifting, evidence of the petty pilfering can be found in drawers and car glove boxes across the nation – each with their own little cache of restaurant and sugar caddy bounty.

Diane Merrits of Orlando, Florida, says she saves money this way. She hasn’t had to buy coffee creamer in years, takes extra ketchup packets at fast food restaurants and saves all the leftover condiment sachets when she orders delivery. She even washes and reuses plastic tableware because “it is good for the environment and better than wasting money.”

“It’s easy for some people to say – to rationalize – taking these items is not going to have an impact. 'No one is going to feel it if I take five Sweet N’Lows,'” says Kristene Doyle, psychologist and the Executive Director of the Albert Ellis Institute.

For those people, it’s the restaurant's way of paying it forward.

“Although there is an unwritten understanding that condiments and small spices or ingredients for making the food served at restaurants more flavorful are there for limited use, some people choose to see this as an unpaid bonus of having come to the restaurant,” agrees Patricia Farrell, clinical psychologist and author of “How to Be Your Own Therapist.”

Farrell adds some of the caddy swipers might say to themselves, “It's there for me, isn't it? Why shouldn't I take it? If they only wanted me to have a little bit, why didn't they just put out a little bit?” - an example of what psychologists call attribution of responsibility.

“In other words, the person taking all of this stuff isn't responsible; it's the establishment's problem. They should have been more careful and it wouldn't have happened,” Farrell explains.

While every freebie opportunist has their own personal reasons for the habit, there are a couple non-pathological, generational factors as well: the current age of entitlement, and what has been identified as a Depression-era mindset.

Entitlement issues are especially prevalent in Generation X and Y (roughly defined as anyone born between 1964 and the mid-1990s), says Doyle.

“They’re used to being told they're perfect; they deserve what they want; they get what they want. It's the ‘if it’s there, I want it’ mentality,” Doyle explains.

On the other hand, the generation that experienced tough economic times, rationing and salvaging during the Depression and even up into World War II, learned to save, plan for possible need and prepare to be as resourceful as possible.

“From the Depression, it was 'we don’t have a lot, we might not have any in the future, I will gather it, hoard and reduce anxiety to ensure I’ll be OK,'” says Doyle.

And while it's easy to label younger people with a sense of entitlement and the older generation with the belief they "need" these items, clinical psychologist Noel Goldberg adds that age isn't always a defining factor.

“If you grew up with parents from the Great Depression, or grandparents from the Great Depression, they can pass on this learned behavior just like folks who have to ‘clean their plate’ when they eat,” he clarifies. Same goes for people who grew up with tough socioeconomic backgrounds.

In very severe cases of this behavior, deeper psychological reasons like kleptomania, hoarding or obsessive-compulsive disorder could be afoot.

Those with kleptomania will experience "an increasing tension or an irresistible urge prior to engaging in the behavior, followed by a feeling of pleasure, gratification, or relief during the behavior. It may also involve shame or guilt following the behavior," says Marla Deibler, clinical psychologist and the Director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia.

Hoarding, on the other hand, tends to be distorted belief about the value of items, adds Doyle. “People that are real hoarders have this excessive attachment to items that typically aren’t valuable.”

Goldberg further explains that for those with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, the anxiety relates to lack of control, so by hoarding, counting or keeping items, they somehow feel they are in more control over some type of anxiety.

Regardless of the reason, restaurant owners feel (and accommodate for) the expected pinch.

“As a restaurant operator, it is amazing to me how much of a negative financial impact every sugar packet, ketchup packet that leaves the building unaccounted for affects our bottom line,” says Nick Pihakis, CEO of Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q.

“Our table condiments account for about 1% of our total supply cost. I know this sounds unbelievable, but that equates to about $900,000 on an annual basis. As crazy as it may sound, we continue to stock our tables, for our guests, with these bits of convenience or opportunity, however you look at it.”

Like Pihakis, usually the business owner takes this standard of practice into account when budgeting and pricing items that are purchased.

As for the psychological takeaway, Deibler says, “The question is, where is the line drawn? Stealing a cracker, a pack of sugar, a salt shaker, a plate, or something larger and of more value? You decide.”

Posted by:
Filed under: Bite • Culture • Etiquette • Favorites

soundoff (808 Responses)
  1. berzhem

    Really enjoyed this post.Much thanks again. Keep writing. ozza

    October 12, 2014 at 11:35 am |
  2. bols

    Every packet of eg sugar with the restaurant's name on it gets valuable free publicity at minimal cost when circulated by 'thieves' like us at dinner parties etc, so I reckon it's a fair deal.

    April 29, 2014 at 5:14 am |
  3. Stoob

    So you have the data point "everyone steals condiments" and you somehow extrapolate that to "old people steal because they lived through scarcity" and "young people steal because they feel entitled"?

    Occam's razor: All people are just thieves. Plain and simple.

    February 12, 2014 at 3:27 pm |
  4. Essie Blewitt

    Where ever you go, I'll comply with...Congrats!!!!


    January 4, 2014 at 3:16 pm |
  5. Bubbles

    I only take one thing: Sugar in the Raw, and only from Starbucks and other overpriced coffee places. Why? Because I know for a fact that they could still make a profit selling a $5 drink for $3, and that a tea bag and hot water doesn't cost $2.75, and sugar in the raw tastes better in my tea

    June 5, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
  6. Travis

    My parents always took extra paper napkins from restaurants so they could make my brother and I wear them as bibs. We had to wear a paper napkin tucked around our necks and one across our laps during meals.

    May 27, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  7. Weeds

    When I'm on the road or about to get into a week or two of backpacking I am a squirrel. At the pancake house I'll tip good but I can't buy those little sealed pats of butter or jam in the store so in my pack they go. How many times have you run through a drive thru set on clocking time and they forgot to through in the ketchup for the fries? No worries, got a spare packet or two in the glove box. Who hasn't tried to eat tacos while driving and not trashed their clothes? Tacos are the suckiest driving food but oh so good. No problem- those extra napkins make for a good bib. When you sometimes live out of fast food restaurants they become a second home and if something there that's not nailed down is going to server a purpose – I'll take it to go. Bye Ma, thanks for the viddles!

    May 17, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      Nah. the worst driving food is a platter of fajitas with a side of beans and rice. Navigating the turnpike while trying to load your tortilla with vittles can be quite the challenge. Not to mentioned the chips and salsa.

      May 17, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
  8. Freedom4All!!!

    I never answer surveys (if you think, or would have others think that you need one to understand human behavior, then you really just need to have your head smacked). However, if I were to answer it, I would take the first option. I DO NOT STOCK UP FOR A MONTH, just enough to get me through those occasions when I'm too rushed to take any, or when the caddies are empty. It's all factored into the price you pay, therefore I should have a few extra to blow my nose without having to pay for Kleenex. They charge you for it, and you pay for it, so take what you think you deserve for what you paid, but not more. You don't want to be the cause of rising prices from taking too much all of the time, but DON'T YOU CALL ME A THIEF WHEN STARBUCKS CHARGES $5 FOR SWEETENED COFFEE! Don't go digging for dirt on your readers, and maybe we won't call you who have the balls to call yourselves "journalists" the cowards, sanctimonious muckrakers, liars, and buzzards which you are!

    Also, this article must have been written by a Baby Boomer, which is the one generation (and the biggest in world history) which was not addressed. How dare you boomer babies apply the term "entitlement" to Gen X and Gen Y – neither is the generation which had half of its members living in Hippie communes, roaming the countryside trying to find their drug-addled selves, and later searching truckloads of arrogantly useless self-help books for their "inner child"! Shut up and die already, Boomer babies!

    May 17, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  9. mustardblog

    I don't condone theft but there is a perfectly reasonable justification for taking as many ketchup packets as you can – to get as many out of circulation as possible. According to the National Condiment Researcuh Council Annual Report, "[k]etchup is now the leading cause of childhood stupidity in America." Remove as many ketchup packets as you can and maybe they won't be there for some unsuspecting child. But that applies only to ketchup. :)

    March 9, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  10. Truth

    The funny thing is that is it usually people with money who does this! The poor people dont' usually steal!

    March 8, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  11. food mom

    When I was young (and, as my son says, the dinosaurs roamed the earth), I had an Aunt who lived in NYC and worked at Gimbels department store (I'm dating myself). One day, an REA Express truck pulled up in front of my parents' house in PA, and delivered 3 suitcases from our Aunt. They contained: packets and packets of condiments that she had swiped from the employee cafeteria, men's & ladies' "unmentionables" (in sizes that none of us could wear), 7 watches, soap samples, and so many other things. It was a combination of Christmas, Halloween and Treasure Hunt for my brothers & me.
    I think that my mom threw out the pepper packets, because we could not tell how old they were. Salt, of course, has no expiration date (unless it's flavoured), though I have been at food shows where merchants have actually asked "How long does this salt hold?"
    We really never asked how she got the watches.

    January 22, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  12. Kalhu

    I can't even lie. As a college student, I most definitely take condiments from restaurants for later use. I especially take condiments from the dining halls on my campus (in my eyes, I'm already paying for them, so why not?). For restaurants outside of my campus though, my rationale is that when I graduate and am working a salary job and can actually afford to buy food then I'll stop taking condiments. Until then, imma keep enjoying my freebie packets of hot sauce from the 24/7 Taco Bell

    January 5, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
  13. Ann

    If you're at a restaurant, you are paying for the meal that you consume AT the restaurant, or the leftovers you take home from that meal. Cramming enough Splenda in your pocket for the rest of the week is just stealing. They do have that in grocery stores, you know. Like it? Buy it.

    The only time I'll really take anything for later is not so much at restaurants, but at hotel breakfasts. I don't typically eat early in the morning, but like to have something a little later. So, I may take a bagel or yogurt with me – especially if I'm travelling for business and know that I won't have another way to get anything to eat until lunchtime.

    January 4, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • Freedom4All!!!

      So, you think I'm not entitled to a napkin if I get a meal at a restaurant to-go? Sometimes the bins are allowed to run empty, so why shouldn't I take enough so there will be some at my desk the next time the bins are empty? By the way, who do you think you are to be telling people what they should buy (especially when they already bought it for what they paid)? How much is too much will always be subjective, therefore this piece of trash article should never have been published as it serves only the purpose of promoting hypcrisy! If you had somebody observing how much toilet paper people use in the restaurant restroom stalls, it would hardly be much worse!

      May 17, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  14. Shanneene

    I voted for the 'yes, I take them because I'm paying at the restaurant'. And why shouldn't I? These days, you can't get a cup of coffee for under $4.50 and the food is marked up, so it's not like the restaurant is going to lose out on profits. I used to work in catering, and there is over 100% markup in the food that is sold to consumers. So I don't feel at all guilty of taking what is already being paid for 100 times over. Though, people who don't eat or drink at restaurants or cafes, and think they are entitled to go pilfering the sugar or condiments, those people are scummy scabs, and that is when it becomes theft.

    December 27, 2012 at 12:40 am |
    • nightwriter

      You're just rationalizing your own theft Shanneene – lots of restaurants go under, so pretending they're all making huge profits and can afford to pay for your personal condiment needs is just lying to yourself.

      January 2, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
      • Freedom4All!!!

        There is something much, much worse than theft, which is hypocrisy – and that is something which you try, but can only fail to rationalize.

        May 17, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
      • KeyboardSmasher

        A lot of eateries deserve to go under, and you shouldn't be harassing those who know better than to help them cover the impact of unrealistic loan debt, poor customer service, or the serving of bad/overpriced food.

        May 17, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  15. Glenna

    I only take the few extra napkins because I think it would be unsanitary to put back for others to use. I do ask for extra cream because I like to drink some, after I drink coffee. it is only a thimble full

    January 25, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  16. judy

    My husband likes to take stuff and stockpile it. I hate the way it ends up unused, taking up space in the fridge and glove compartment and other places he stashes stuff. I end up having to throw it out after a suitable time. At one time he had 6 plastic bags full of paper napkins from public places. His parents complained throughout the 1950s about how poor they were, so I guess he learned it even though they were successful later.

    January 25, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  17. Shig

    I take every packet of ketchup I can get from McDonalds...even though I only want a single honey mustard for my fries, they want to charge you for that so in anger I take as much of the free ketchup as they'll give me. It's petty....sometimes I'm petty....

    January 24, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  18. DJE

    I don't take extras from restaurants, but I know which restaurants always send gobs with take out. Not that it is the deciding factor in where I order food, but I like to take the extras to work, for those days that last night's leftovers need a little boost to be palatable.

    January 23, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
| Part of

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,975 other followers