Restaurants are still struggling, and crime isn't helping

Cedric Maupillier was in the kitchen during a busy Saturday night at Convivial on Oct. 21. The chef didn't hear the shots when several men exited a vehicle and opened fire at the Giant supermarket across the street in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

But his guests did.

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They immediately sought cover inside the restaurant at the corner of Eighth and O streets NW, with its picture-window views of the neighborhood. Diners and employees, Maupillier said, feared an active shooter was nearby. Customers hid under tables; one group turned over theirs to create a shield, sending plates, food and glasses crashing to the floor.

"Everybody was kind of freaking out," Maupillier said. "Some woman was screaming."

No one was hurt inside the restaurant, though one man was injured in the gunfire outside the supermarket, according to a Washington, D.C. police report. This wasn't a random act of violence, like the mass shooting on Oct. 25 at a bar and grill in Lewiston, Maine. This was part of a chronic neighborhood problem: It was the fourth time in the past few months someone had fired a gun within earshot of his restaurant, said Maupillier, who opened Convivial eight years ago in Shaw, which was then experiencing a revitalization.

Since July, the city's police records indicate there have been five assaults with a dangerous weapon within a 1,000-foot radius of the restaurant, and those cases don't include a Sept. 1 shooting near the 1300 block of Seventh Street NW, which left two young women dead. The violence around Convivial has rattled staff, though most have remained. The Oct. 21 shooting, however, compelled hostess India Shievdayal, who wasn't even at the restaurant that night, to tell Maupillier she would no longer work evening shifts.

"I don't think it's worth risking my life," said Shievdayal, 19, a sophomore at American University.

Her boss understands the fear.

"I am in the line of fire, and people are waiting for me to be a casualty. And one day, somebody from my restaurant - a guest or a staff member or myself - is going to get injured or worse because this is the wrong location," Maupillier told The Washington Post. "Because the police and the city have created a worse crime zone than it was eight years ago."

Then the chef paused. "I'm sorry," he added, "but I'm mad."

Maupillier is not alone in his anger about crime in America's cities and its effect on business. Crime, chefs and proprietors say, has hit their sector particularly hard, arguably at the worst time, as many restaurants are still trying to emerge from a global pandemic.

Margins are already parchment-paper thin, and restaurants have struggled to remain profitable amid a crush of issues: the rising price of ingredients, changing dining habits, debt obligations and increased labor costs as some jurisdictions begin to phase out the tipped minimum wage or owners shell out more money to attract and maintain a stable crew.

In cities from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., crime is adding to those costs, or at least adding to the stress of getting people back into dining rooms at pre-pandemic levels.

"It is a growing concern, and we're hearing it nationwide," said Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs for the National Restaurant Association.

"Rising food costs don't work in our favor. Rising labor costs do not work in our favor. Economic uncertainty does not work in our favor," Kennedy told The Post. "When you add to that the layer of something like people being concerned for their own personal safety, it puts unsustainable pressure on the nation's second-largest employer."

Crime hurts companies large and small in America's dining ecosystem. McDonald's chief executive said crime and issues related to homelessness are impacting the chain's 400 restaurants in the Chicago area, not to mention hindering efforts to attract executives to its Windy City headquarters. Last year, Starbucks announced that it would close 16 locations around the country, citing safety concerns for customers and employees alike.

In April, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association asked its 800-plus members in San Francisco to select three priorities for 2023, and crime topped the list, said Laurie Thomas, the association's executive director and the owner of two restaurants in the Bay Area. Second was the city's large population of unhoused people.

"The city has become too easy for people to use drugs and cause mayhem. It's not safe out there, and we need to change that," one restaurateur commented in the association survey.

San Francisco has been dealing with many of the same issues that face other major metropolitan areas: a downtown with steep declines in office occupancy rates; a police department with a shortage of officers; inflation, large budget deficits and an economy that has led to layoffs.

These issues can impact public perceptions as well as personal discretionary income, which in turn can affect traffic to dining rooms, Thomas said. But crime figures into the equation, too. "Does graffiti and vandalism contribute to people not wanting to go to an area? Yeah," Thomas said. "Does car break-ins? Sure, that hurts our regional travel a lot."

For nearly 28 years, Bella Notte sat on West Grand Avenue, right on the border of the West Loop, one of Chicago's seven downtown neighborhoods. Like San Francisco, Chicago has seen its downtown hollowed out during the pandemic. The Windy City is also facing a massive budget deficit and a shortage of police. The data analysts might disagree, but Ramon Aguirre, whose parents own Bella Notte and its building, says these factors turned the Italian restaurant's neighborhood into a crime zone.

"The first 25 years, we had one break-in. Since covid, we were having break-ins every three months, and there was a time when we had a break-in for like four or five weeks straight," said Aguirre, who ran the restaurant's operations.

The fear of crime, in part, kept diners away from the neighborhood, Aguirre said. Pre-covid, Bella Notte did $25,000 to $30,000 a week in sales, he said, but starting in the summer of 2022 when crews started road construction near the restaurant, sales plummeted to $10,000 to $15,000 a week and never recovered. Aguirre had a hard time holding onto staff, and he feared for the safety of those he did retain once the restaurant closed for the night and they had to take public transportation home.

In July, Aguirre and his parents decided enough was enough. They closed Bella Notte in July, just weeks short of the restaurant's 28th anniversary. They put their three-story building up for sale, Aguirre said, to pay off the debts of a Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy filed years earlier. The bank, Aguirre said, wanted them to lower their asking price by hundreds of thousands of dollars, which they did.

The family still has no buyers, he said.

There are a number of ways to try to quantify and identify trends about crime in and around restaurants in the United States. According to Federal Bureau of Investigation data collected from 8,300 law enforcement departments, violent crime rose nearly 20 percent at restaurants from 2019 to 2022, the latest year stats are available. But those 8,300 reporting agencies represent only about 46 percent of overall police departments and don't include major cities such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago or Washington, D.C.

You can also drill down and review local crime stats. Some cities, such as Washington, D.C., Chicago and Oakland, have online portals in which you can see the number of reported crimes around a selected address. You can, for instance, type in the address for Bella Notte in Chicago and see dozens of crimes committed on the streets around the closed restaurant. (As in many cities, Chicago's crime rates vary: Some, such as robberies and aggravated assaults, have spiked in the past year; others have fallen, including homicides.)

Yet if you talk to restaurateurs and chefs, they'll tell you that many of the crimes they deal with are never reported. They'll tell you that graffiti, burglaries and the problems associated with homelessness - such as destruction of property - can cause thousands of dollars in damages. The money to repair the damages, they say, often comes out of their own pocket - for one simple reason.

"If you report too many crimes or burglaries, then the insurance company may drop you or even increase your rates," says Nigel Jones, chef and owner of Calabash in Oakland, where violent crime this year is up by 22 percent over the same period in 2022, according to recent police statistics.

Case in point: Last November, Reverence, a fine-dining restaurant in Harlem owned by chef Russell Jackson, was the victim of an early-morning burglary. The burglar, seen on videotape from the restaurant's security cameras, stole electronics and busted up the place. He even knocked over two lemon trees, nicknamed Siegfried and Roy, which Jackson had inside the restaurant. Both trees died.

This was the first time in his 40 years in the hospitality business, Jackson said, that he has experienced a break-in. Between property damage and lost services, the burglary cost him about $25,000. He said it took months to run the claim through his insurance carrier.

"Then within 90 days of paying out the claim, the insurance company kicked us to the curb," Jackson said. "We had to go out and shop for a new insurance company."

Restaurateurs are not just frustrated with insurance carriers. They're frustrated by the lack of police on the street - and what they say is a lack of will to prosecute suspects for small crimes such as burglary, vehicle break-ins or vandalism.

Last year, Sam Sanchez, then chairman of the Illinois Restaurant Association, told a reporter from Chicago's PBS station that "our problem is prosecution." Sanchez suggested Chicago could add 1,000 more officers and it would make little difference unless Kimberly Foxx, Cook County state's attorney, prosecutes those arrested. (Foxx, a justice-system reformer who vowed to stop treating low-level offenders the same as violent criminals, announced this year she won't seek reelection amid mounting criticism.)

Thomas with the Golden Gate Restaurant Association lauded a change in the San Francisco district attorney's office last when residents voted to recall Chesa Boudin. A former public defender, Boudin had been elected on a platform to reduce prison populations, reevaluate wrongful convictions and other remedies to change a justice system that greatly impacts communities of color. But during Boudin's tenure, his critics grumbled about soaring crime rates, homelessness and a lack of prosecution, even though his allies said the complaints against the district attorney didn't always stand up to scrutiny.

"We got religion," said Thomas about prosecuting criminals. Brooke Jenkins, the new tough-on-crime district attorney, has the support of the restaurant association.

"This DA was a prosecutor. She is pro-prosecuting, right? She is not pro-public defending," Thomas said. "That's her job and she gets it. It's really critical."

In the debate about the best ways to deal with crime in America - the lock-'em-up approach vs. reform-minded programs to treat the root causes of crime and create a more equitable justice system - many in the restaurant industry have leaned into the law-and-order side of the argument. They want tough prosecutors, not reform-minded ones, even if recent studies find no connection between progressive prosecutors and a rise in violent crime and suggest that leniency on those arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors may decrease recidivism.

"Restaurant owners have legitimate concerns about crime, and they are right to call for meaningful solutions," said Lindsey McLendon, a senior fellow for criminal justice reform at Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute. "Blaming prosecutorial reform, however, is misplaced."

On the streets of Oakland, a once-booming city that attracted national coverage for its food and culture, these kind of arguments can feel meaningless to operators as their restaurants deal with one crime after another.

Nelson German, chef and owner of alaMar Dominican Kitchen and Sobre Mesa cocktail lounge, says that between his two operations, he has experienced five break-ins since 2018. What's more, earlier this year, the chef's aunt and uncle ate at the restaurant while visiting from Florida, only to return to their rental car to find the windows smashed. Likewise, German said, a visiting chef from San Diego found his rental car stolen after he hung out at Sobre Mesa.

Police response times on these type of incidents, German said, can range from hours to a day - or longer. That is, if he and his peers can even reach someone. When they call 911, German said, they sometimes get a busy signal.

"We love Oakland, but we don't like Oakland at the moment," German said.

Over the past 18 months, Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, located less than a block from Sobre Mesa in downtown Oakland, has seen its doors smashed seven times, said Jeff Weinstein, chief executive of the company. During the reporting of this story, Wise Sons experienced another break-in.

"There's a feeling that the city, about certain things, is just not going to do anything about it," Weinstein said.

This, in turn, creates an atmosphere in which crime flourishes, Weinstein said. He points to an incident on June 4, after Wise Sons had closed for the day. Two vehicles came careening down Franklin Street on this sleepy Sunday afternoon. One vehicle bumped into the other, causing it to smash into the deli's storefront.

The incident shut down Wise Sons, either fully or partially, for six weeks and caused $250,000 in damages, Weinstein said. The small chain lost another $100,000 in sales.

The incident was classified as a hit and run, according to a police report. But based on surveillance video that Weinstein forwarded to The Post, the drivers appear to know one another given their interactions after the incident. Weinstein suspects the two were joyriding.

"We know that people drive too fast down the street," Weinstein said. "We know that there's very little law enforcement in the area. We know that there are not consequences when people speed or cause accidents. So there's just a feeling of lawlessness. I think that the environment contributed to somebody feeling like they could do whatever they wanted to do."

As they did during the pandemic, restaurant owners are taking matters into their own hands. They're not only adapting their operations - shortening hours, bolstering security systems, limiting cash on hand - they're also lobbying for their interests. Based on its member survey, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association made graffiti abatement a top priority, and the organization has received commitments from the police and the district attorney to arrest and prosecute taggers in the city, said Thomas, the executive director.

Just as important, Martin Ferreira, graffiti abatement officer for the San Francisco Police Department, is back on the job full-time after being reassigned during the pandemic. The city's commitment to tackling graffiti has already paid off, Thomas noted. Last month, police said they arrested a prolific graffiti vandal named Brian Wabl, who tags under the name "Goer." Wabl was recently charged with felony vandalism.

"What I've seen from restaurant owners is that, yeah, they're angry," Ferreira told The Post. "They feel like they're being constantly victimized by people in the middle of the night who just come and, for absolutely no reason and for no benefit for themselves, vandalize their property." The costs to repair property marred by graffiti, Ferreira said, can range from $500 to $3,000 per incident.

In Oakland, the restaurant community has also come together to fight for a safer city. This summer, dozens of chefs and owners signed a letter demanding that Oakland leaders, among other things, increase police presence on the streets, put cameras on every building for "minimum street coverage," and create a $10 million fund to assist small businesses that experience break-ins.

The business community even organized a one-day strike in September to get City Hall's attention. Many of the participants stood outside Le Cheval, a Vietnamese restaurant that had served the Oakland community for more than 35 years before closing its doors at the end of September - another victim of crime, its owner said.

"Oakland has been known as a city that is okay with violence and crime. We're not," said Jones, the Calabash owner, during the strike.

Jones is also one of organizers behind the demand letter to city leaders, and he and others have seen some movement from Mayor Sheng Thao. She announced a pilot program to open a downtown parking garage to visitors and workers, for a flat fee, and provide security at the facility to prevent vehicle break-ins. Jones has also noticed more police on the streets and organized efforts to catch car vandals. There was a major bust of 137 people, including 31 homicide suspects.

The mayor, Jones said, is trying. "I can see that," he said.

As for Maupillier at Convivial?

Brooke Pinto, the Washington, D.C., city council member whose district includes Shaw, is trying to thread a needle in a progressive city that Congress, with its authority over local affairs, has accused of being "soft on crime" while D.C. homicide rates spike. This summer, Pinto introduced an emergency public safety bill, which included initiatives from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), and the D.C. Council passed it, 12-1.

Since then, Pinto has introduced a sweeping set of proposals to tackle and prevent crime as well as to create a task force to review diversionary programs that could keep nonviolent misdemeanor offenders out of jail.

The goal, Pinto said in a statement to The Post, is to keep visitors, residents and business owners safe. "The status quo is not acceptable," Pinto said.

Maupillier says he isn't interested in talk, just results. He's also not optimistic things will change fast enough to save his restaurant, his first as lead owner and operator.

"I'm just losing my business slowly," he said. "The more people are aware of that location being associated with crime, the less energy the restaurant has to survive for the long-term."

"I just need to get out of here," he added.

- - -

Steven Rich contributed to this report.

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