Could Spanish mass ‘eat and run’ incidents actually be a protest against inequality?

Waiters and restaurateurs across Europe could be forgiven for being a little quick with the bill, after large-scale “eat and run” incidents in Spain have left two restaurants thousands of euros out of pocket. In what the Spanish authorities believe were related incidents, hundreds of diners fled without paying on two separate occasions, just a few weeks apart.

In early March, around 120 diners downed €2,000 worth of food and drink at the El Carmen restaurant, in the northern Spanish town of Bembibre, before deploying a giant conga dance as a pretext to head outside to their cars and flee the scene.

A much bigger loss was suffered by the El Rincón de Pepín restaurant in Ponferrada, just 20km away. There, a 160-strong wedding party managed to flee in a matter of five minutes, leaving the owners with a €10,000 headache.

The exits have fuelled concern about the possible spread of the phenomenon. But more than this, the incidents have rekindled a fierce debate on the proper limits of social disobedience.

Take away

Given the scale of the operations – and the fact that the restaurants are family-owned businesses – many understandably want to see the full force of the law brought to bear on the culprits, two of whom have been identified by police. Yet other incidents of “simpas” – the Spanish term for “eat and run” – have provoked very different responses.

In a previous case, a 54-year-old Polish vagrant was arrested on ten separate occasions in Asturias, Spain, for the offence. According to police, he refused to attend a council-run soup kitchen because he “preferred restaurant food”.

But rather than calling for a harsh sentence for the man, many defended his actions – some even called for eat and run actions to be stepped up in expensive restaurants on the grounds that the establishments could bear the financial loss without too much pain.

It seems that in some cases eating and running is seen as a legitimate act of civil disobedience, in the same vein as squatting private residences or occupying public spaces. These actions are sympathetically viewed as protests against injustice (particularly by the left) despite their negative impacts on others.

Countering consumerism

Spain, which consistently figures very high in world retail theft rankings, has proved fertile ground for such protests. This may be explained, in part, by its relatively lenient criminal justice system, which does not consider shoplifting and similar thefts to be a crime if the stolen goods are valued at less than €400.

For instance, more than a decade ago, a shoplifting movement called YoMango – Spanish slang for “I swipe”, and a pun on the popular fashion chain initially targeted by the thieves – emerged as a way of undermining consumerist culture.

Marketing the anti-capitalist movement. leodecera/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The organisation defended its actions by stressing that members stole “not from people but from faceless department chains”. It argued that transnational corporations were concerned only with profit, not respect for workers’ rights or the environment. Stealing from such massive businesses was, therefore, merely an “ethical” way of returning to the people what had been stolen from them in terms of their labour, ideas and so on.

YoMango went on to spawn a highly organised multinational movement, dedicated to providing people with the tools and skills needed to pursue this form of civil disobedience: from clothing with hidden pockets, to local shoplifting demonstrations. It now has dedicated communities of followers in countries as far apart as Germany, Argentina and Mexico.

The bigger picture

As yet, there has not been widespread mimicry of the Ponferrada and Bembibre cases. But the mere hint of a new fad is likely to encourage restaurants to review their practices and it is not inconceivable that at least some might adopt a pub-style “pay before you eat” policy. Already, a number of establishments in the Bembibre area are offering 10% discounts to diners willing to put hand in pocket before receiving their food.

Pricey restaurants can be seen as symbols of social elitism, so it’s possible that modern descendants of YoMango will add “eat and run” to their arsenal of weapons against the supposed evils of consumerist culture. Spain is still in the grasp of a recession that has further widened the gulf between the haves and have-nots. It is even possible that sympathetic restaurant staff – aggrieved at low wages – might turn a blind eye, as happened when a number of shop workers joined forces with YoMango.

Even so, the legitimacy of “eat and run” as part of a supposed collective reflection on the role of consumption in our lives is clearly questionable. There are other ways for social movements to “punish” the establishments they take issue with. For instance, rather than stealing, sympathisers could simply stay away from restaurants and avoid adding to their revenue – in the same way that vegetarians abstain from meat.

The chances of the craze catching on in any big way are probably low – after all, diners are more easily identified by their reservation name or face than shoplifters. But then again, the adrenalin high that comes with getting one over on expensive restaurants against the odds might just add the extra incentive needed for thrill seekers to jump on the simpa bandwagon.

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