Buns of steal

  • The investigator: Glenn Geib with stacks of bread trays at Stroehmann’s in Bensalem. Over the last eight years, investigators say they have recovered more than 40,000 stolen bread trays. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • A trail of thefts: Gene Sweet moves a stack of empty bread trays. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Plastic crates are used to display produce at the Italian Market. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Private in­vest­ig­at­ors Glenn Geib and Kath­leen Smith ven­ture hun­dreds of miles to hunt down a stolen com­mod­ity that most folks wouldn’t look at twice if they saw it stacked up on a street corner.

It’s not gold or sil­ver — or even that re­ces­sion-era pre­cious met­al, alu­min­um — that sparks the in­terest of these seasoned sleuths. Rather, the Philly-based P.I.s have their sights set on plastic, mil­lions of dol­lars worth of it.

Spe­cific­ally, they’re after the plastic found in bread trays, those cus­tom-made pal­lets long used by cor­por­ate baker­ies to ship loaves, buns, rolls and muffins to re­tail mar­kets. Geib and Smith work for Hor­sham-based Bimbo Baker­ies USA, the man­u­fac­turer of brands in­clud­ing Stroehmann’s, Thomas’ and En­t­en­mann’s. In the last eight years, the in­vest­ig­at­ors say, they’ve re­covered more than 40,000 stolen bread trays, along with 10,000 plastic dol­lies used to wheel stacks of trays.

Ac­cord­ing to a vet­er­an Bimbo ex­ec­ut­ive, the com­pany loses about 250,000 trays each year to theft at a cost of about $3 mil­lion. The prob­lem has got­ten worse with each passing year as au­thor­it­ies and the pub­lic at large gen­er­ally view the prob­lem as neg­li­gible, if they re­cog­nize it at all.

“The po­lice don’t un­der­stand the scope of this type of crime and they don’t want to be bothered with it,” said Smith, a former Phil­adelphia po­lice ser­geant who served 37 years on the force. “The at­ti­tude is, ‘You see them lay­ing out in the street.’” 

Bimbo is the na­tion’s largest bak­ing com­pany by vir­tue of sev­er­al cor­por­ate ac­quis­i­tions with­in the last dec­ade. It sup­plies products to thou­sands of su­per­mar­kets, smal­ler baker­ies, res­taur­ants and even Cit­izens Bank Park. De­liv­ery drivers gen­er­ally leave the trays on-loc­a­tion so the busi­nesses can un­load the products at their con­veni­ence. The trouble is, many of those busi­nesses then leave the empty trays, dozens or hun­dreds of them, out­side on the load­ing dock.

Savvy thieves come along and snatch the trays to make a profit on their re­cycle value. The trays are made of polypro­pyl­ene, a tough but flex­ible plastic with a high melt­ing point. Pet­ro­leum is used to man­u­fac­ture the ma­ter­i­al, so its mar­ket value in­creases with rising oil prices. Ac­cord­ing to the private in­vest­ig­at­ors, re­cyclers may pay 25 to 30 cents per pound for it. They grind up the trays and re-sell the un­trace­able ma­ter­i­al to man­u­fac­tur­ers.

“Once the eco­nomy began to slide and jobs be­came scarce, you had a lot of people look­ing for work and scrap­ping,” said Geib, who in­vest­ig­ated two thieves who claimed to have earned more than $500 a week by col­lect­ing un­se­cured bread trays throughout the city and de­liv­er­ing them to a North Philly re­cyc­ling yard.

Al­tern­ately, lots of trays end up in the hands of oth­er small busi­nesses, which re-pur­pose them, of­ten brazenly, for their own product dis­tri­bu­tion. Many of the mer­chants along South Phil­adelphia’s Ninth Street Itali­an Mar­ket use trays to dis­play their goods, for ex­ample. Many soft pret­zel street vendors use them, too.

“They fig­ure it’s easi­er to use some­body else’s equip­ment than to make your own, so they do it un­til they get caught,” Smith said.

“[They have] al­most a sense of en­ti­tle­ment, like they’re angry you want your prop­erty back,” Geib said.

Bimbo is not alone as a vic­tim. The prob­lem spans the bak­ing, milk and soft drink in­dus­tries, said Jack Marro, a dis­tri­bu­tion con­sult­ant for Bimbo and long­time ex­ec­ut­ive with its Freihofer’s brand.

“I’ve been work­ing with the com­pany for 40 years and it’s been a prob­lem go­ing on 40 years,” Marro said. “It’s not unique to our busi­ness. It af­fects any­body in in­dus­tries that use polypro­pyl­ene [to de­liv­er products].”

A Ju­ly 2010 art­icle in the Wall Street Journ­al re­por­ted that the Amer­ic­an Bakers As­so­ci­ation claimed its mem­bers lose at least $75 mil­lion a year to tray theft.

“Coca-Cola is quot­ing fig­ures like $10 mil­lion a year,” Marro said.

In 2009, Bimbo, Coke and Sara Lee Corp. formed a part­ner­ship to tackle the prob­lem. COM­BAT (Con­trol of Miss­ing Bas­kets and Trays) uses its own team of in­vest­ig­at­ors to track down and re­cov­er miss­ing crates while ad­voc­at­ing crim­in­al charges against of­fend­ers when pos­sible.

Law en­force­ment has been re­cept­ive in some loc­ales. Ac­cord­ing to the same Wall Street Journ­al re­port, five people were in­dicted in Mary­land in 2009 for al­legedly steal­ing $10 mil­lion worth of plastic con­tain­ers from busi­nesses in­clud­ing Rite-Aid Corp. and H&S Bakery. In an­oth­er Mary­land case, pro­sec­utors charged the own­ers of a Landover re­cyc­ling busi­ness with felony theft after they al­legedly earned $443,000 in sev­en months by selling al­most three mil­lion pounds of stolen plastic, the Journ­al said.

However, in many places in­clud­ing Phil­adelphia, ar­rests and pro­sec­u­tions are not hap­pen­ing. The Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Of­fice here is un­aware of any re­cent cases, al­though there is a sec­tion in Pennsylvania’s Crimes Code re­lat­ing spe­cific­ally to the theft of bakery and dairy crates as well as shop­ping and laun­dry carts. A “pre­sump­tion of pos­ses­sion” clause al­lows au­thor­it­ies to charge someone with a vi­ol­a­tion if the per­son is found in pos­ses­sion of a con­tain­er marked with a com­pany’s name or logo out­side of that com­pany’s premises.

The law lacks pun­it­ive teeth, however. A vi­ol­a­tion is a sum­mary of­fense pun­ish­able by a $300 max­im­um fine or up to 90 days in jail. In Phil­adelphia, where vi­ol­ent crime and qual­ity-of-life is­sues place high de­mands on lim­ited po­lice re­sources, the bread crate law doesn’t make the list of en­force­ment pri­or­it­ies.

Phil­adelphia po­lice Capt. Frank Bach­may­er, the long­time com­mand­er of the 15th dis­trict and re­cently ap­poin­ted North­east De­tect­ives boss, thinks that vic­tim­ized busi­nesses should take more re­spons­ib­il­ity for their own prop­erty.

“One of the things the es­tab­lish­ment could do is pre­vent the theft from hap­pen­ing in the first place,” Bach­may­er said. “There are things they could do, like more light­ing and video sur­veil­lance.”

Busi­nesses could keep the trays in­side or lock them in a pen.

“I agree, but it’s not prac­tic­al,” Marro said. “One of the prob­lems is our [high] volume. It [re­quires] a lot of space.”

In the ab­sence of en­force­ment, Geib and Smith spend most of their ef­forts on re­cov­ery. Smith re­calls a case in which she found someone selling bread trays on the In­ter­net and traveled to a stor­age fa­cil­ity in the Bronx to re­trieve them.

It turned out that the seller had un­know­ingly bought the trays when he won an auc­tion for the con­tents of an aban­doned stor­age unit. The trays had been stolen from a truck in up­state New York eight months earli­er. They were still loaded with hun­dreds of pack­ages of de­cay­ing bread and buns when Smith showed up.

New York po­lice even­tu­ally found out who put the trays in the stor­age unit.

“They charged him not only with steal­ing the trays, but steal­ing all the baked goods, too,” Smith said.

Most times, when the in­vest­ig­at­ors dis­cov­er a big stash, they con­vince the per­son in pos­ses­sion of the trays to sur­render them. Vol­un­tary com­pli­ance hap­pens “99 per­cent of the time,” Geib said.

But there’s little to stop the same people from ac­quir­ing more stolen trays.

“In or­der to have any type of im­pact on this prob­lem, you need a keen in­terest from law en­force­ment,” Geib said. “Once they see a pre­ced­ent, they’re go­ing to know they can’t do this.” ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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