For the past month or two, my place of work (this very website) has been plagued by a relatively harmless but deeply mystifying figure: the phantom lunch thief. What’s happened since has followed a trajectory sure to be familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in an office with more than, say, 30 employees: a menacing, all-caps Post-It note was posted, instructing the thief: “PLEASE DO NOT TAKE FOOD THAT DOESN’T BELONG TO YOU.” The appropriate authorities were alerted. The authorities sent out slightly mean emails about how we’re all adults here, and even those of us who didn’t do anything wrong were embarrassed. For a few days, no lunches were stolen. But then, just when you thought it was safe to leave an Amy’s frozen burrito in the shared fridge for 12 days, the lunch thief struck again. Collectively, and publicly — all wanting to make very clear that we were innocent — my colleagues and I wondered: who does this? What kind of person steals lunch from people they work with, and why?
To find out, I had to identify one such person. First, I offered my own office lunch thief immunity (or, well, anonymity) if they came forward to tell me their life story, but nobody took me up on it. I asked Twitter, where many people expressed outrage over the very idea of lunch theft, but again, no actual thieves surfaced. I even made a Google Form about it, and nobody filled out my Google Form. I was very nearly too dejected to continue my search when I remembered: Reddit. If not there, where?
On Reddit, I found a few lunch theft discussion threads, and messaged about 15 or 20 users who indicated that they had stolen, or would steal, lunch from a co-worker, several of whom sounded very pleased with themselves. I told them I was a reporter, and asked if they’d be willing to elaborate on their experiences in lunch theft. Unfortunately, most relevant postings I found were from, like, four years ago, and again it seemed no one would come forward. But then someone wrote me back. Eventually he agreed to speak with me, and we arranged a phone call. His name is Rob, and he’s a programmer in his early 40s. Together we decided there are probably enough programmers in their 40s named Rob that divulging this amount of personal information was okay.
As a non-lunch-stealer, I’ve never understood the mentality either (I’ve been the victim once or twice at work, at more-often way back when I lived in student accommodation), and this interview really helped to humanise a perpetrator. I still can’t condone it, but at least now I’ve got a greater understanding. Yay, empathy!