Restaurant owners: Be on the lookout for the woman pictured above.

According to the proprietors of three fast-casual eateries along South 21st Street in Rittenhouse, she’s a small-time con artist with no qualms about boldly lying in order to scam cash off small business owners.

On Monday afternoon, the woman hit the three spots in quick succession, pulling the same routine at each one. Her racket consisted of claiming to have found a hair in a recent to-go dish and demanding a cash refund for her entire (fictitious) order.

The hustle worked at the first two locations — Hawaiian food specialist Poi Dog and Roman pizza joint Rione — but by the time she made it to the third, healthy eats shop Agno Grill, the owners of the previous two restaurants had figured out something was fishy and were able to stop that particular theft by confronting her. She fled before they could call the police, who eventually arrived and took down a report.

According to Rione co-owner Francesco Crovetti, the woman entered his shop and claimed she had ordered two slices last Friday, but that there was a hair in one so she didn’t bother eating the other.

“I tried looking up the transactions [from Friday],” Crovetti told Billy Penn, “but I had customers coming in. So as not to create a scene, I just apologized and gave her the money back.”

It was only $12 or so that he handed over, but he had a feeling something was fishy, so he asked one of his staffers to watch her movements after she left. The staffer spotted the woman heading into Agno Grill, so Crovetti headed over and confronted her just as Agno co-owner Kriti Sehgal was handing over more cash.

“I said, ‘Oh, so this is what you do for a living?’” Crovetti recounted.

Sehgal had also noticed something about the woman didn’t seem right.

“She told me she bought two salads last week, and that one had a hair in it, but then she couldn’t tell me anything about what kind of salad she ordered or what day she had been in,” Sehgal said. After she apologized for the supposed hair and handed over cash to cover one salad, Sehgal said, the woman demanded a refund for the second. Sehgal hesitated, asking for more details: Did the salads have salmon or chicken? Did she pay cash or card?

“Something felt off,” Sehgal said.

That’s when Crovetti made his entrance and scared the scammer away. “I was only cheated out of $12, but at least I got her to leave,” he said.

Poi Dog co-owner Kiki Aranita was the first of the three to get hit by the ruse, handing over $25.92 to cover two supposed poke bowls the woman had ordered on the previous Saturday — one of which she claimed had a hair in it. When the woman demanded cash back, Aranita gave it to her, something she now regrets, since she later went through her records and realized no such order was ever placed on Saturday during the timeframe the woman claimed to have visited.

“I should have gone downstairs and checked right away,” Aranita said, “but I was busy, I had a sales rep waiting for me. And I’m a new business owner — we don’t have a policy yet for this kind of thing.”

Having a policy in place is the only real recourse restaurant owners have against this kind of con, said a representative at the Ninth District Office of the Philadelphia Police, which covers the Rittenhouse area.

“If someone does return items they didn’t buy, like they stole them from Home Depot and try to return them at Lowe’s or something, it’s a crime,” the police officer said. “But in this case, I don’t know if it could be investigated by our detectives. The restaurants have to stand up to her — of course they don’t want a bad name, which is why this is done.”

So, per police advice, restaurateurs should spread the word to be on the lookout.

“I feel like an asshole,” Aranita said, “but now I just want to warn other restaurants.”

Update: Kite & Key ownerr Jim Kirk reached out to say the same woman had pulled the same scam on him last week, scoring around $40 in cash off employees at his new Drexel Hill spot Station Tap.

“I knew something was strange when the staff called me,” Kirk said.

Danya Henninger spent six years as director at Billy Penn, a startup acquired by public media organization WHYY in 2019.