However many people you made that reservation for at your favorite La Jolla restaurant, add one more: Big Brother. Of the 20 restaurants the Light checked up on in The Village, 16 have security cameras mounted on their walls or ceilings. Five have more than one.Exactly who is watching you and why?
One restaurant owner, who spoke to the Light only on condition of anonymity, said his camera is trained on employees working the cash register. “It’s to let them know they’re being watched so there’s no temptation,” he said.
According to a study by Hiscox Business Insurance, U.S. companies lost an average of $1.13 million each to employee theft in 2016. In restaurants, the most common thefts are cash, tips and inventory. An August 2018 article in the trade magazine Full Service Restaurant offered what it speculated were the most common employee motivations for this: 1) feeling underpaid or otherwise wronged by employers; 2) harboring the false impression that theft losses are covered by insurance; and 3) not being able to resist the opportunity.
Kathy Sandler, co-owner of Cruisers Sub Shop — scheduled to open in early May in the former Wahoo’s Fish Taco space at 637 Pearl St. — said Cruisers will keep the pre-installed security camera to monitor its morning deliveries. “If they come at 6 in the morning, you give your delivery people and cleaners the code to enter your building,” she said. “So if things go missing, everything is video-recorded and you can watch it remotely from an app on your phone.”
Such apps typically store footage for a set amount of time (or up to a certain data limit) before recording over old footage.Another reason restaurants employ security cameras is for legal protection.
“Things like slip-and-falls or people challenging what happened in an altercation,” said George Hauer, owner of George’s at the Cove, 1250 Prospect St. “You just never know when you’re going to need that, and when you do have an incident, it comes in quite handy.”
But isn’t there a reasonable expectation of privacy when dining in a restaurant?
Not at all, according to San Diego attorney Brian Burchett, who has worked on cases where video footage shot in restaurants was admitted as evidence.
“There is no reasonable expectation of privacy for communication or for behavior in a place like a restaurant,” Burchett said. “The Supreme Court would not suppress that video.” What is illegal in California are cameras that are hidden or placed where people do have that reasonable privacy expectation — such as in bathrooms, shower stalls and locker rooms.
Café Milano, 711 Pearl St., is the only restaurant identified by the Light as not having a camera whose owner would explain why.
“This is La Jolla,” said Pasquale Cianni with a big smile. “Are you kidding? There’s no crime in La Jolla.”
Part of that statement’s charm is its obvious lack of truth. In fact, only a few doors east on Pearl Street, Chedi Thai Bistro, 737 Pearl St., was robbed at gunpoint on May 9, 2016. (When the Light approached its owners to participate in this story, it learned that Chedi Thai had permanently closed.)What seems apparent is that most restaurant owners would rather their customers not think about the cameras they use. (In fact, when informed of the premise of this story, the general manager of one upscale Prospect Street restaurant grew angry. “Whether we have cameras or not is our business,” he said. “For all we know, you could be casing the place yourself.”)
The sense the Light got after this investigation was that restaurant security cameras are not there to monitor the average diner. Even though Big Brother is watching, he probably doesn’t care about that secret dinner and bottle of Cab you shared with someone you intentionally never told your spouse, boss or parole officer about.However, as Burchett joked, if you want an iron-clad guarantee of that footage never being seen by anyone, “you might want to start eating at home more.”