Restaurant burglaries have been on the rise this year. Our most recent report about it on June 9 noted that, at the time, the Houston Police Department said restaurant burglaries were up 27.3 percent over last year.
Since then, several more restaurants have been burglarized or, at the very least, vandalized. One of the most recent ones hit by criminals isn’t even open right now, except as a private event space.
Bramble closed at the end of July. Perhaps the criminals didn’t realize that, because they broke in not once but twice on concurrent days: August 19 and 20. Chef and owner Randy Rucker said via email that the first incident occurred sometime between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. and the second around 11 p.m. The would-be thieves broke a full-size glass door and a custom window, causing $2,000 worth of damage.
Two of Morgan Weber’s businesses—Eight Row Flint and Revival Market—have been burglarized. Fortunately, the thieves didn’t break windows. Instead, they pried open doors with crowbars. Still, Weber estimates his losses to be between $10,000 and $15,000 and says Eight Row Flint was broken into three times within two weeks, always around 3 or 4 a.m.
The first time, the thieves, who Weber says were “two guys, both wearing masks,” hit after a busy weekend and got away with a lot of cash. On subsequent burglaries, they didn’t get away with anything. Weber believes it was the same two men each time.
The big question on restaurant owners’ minds now is this: what is the Houston Police Department doing to catch these criminals and prevent further incidents? Right now, it sounds like they’re not doing much at all.
Rucker emphasized his respect for police but says that they haven’t done any follow-up so far and “actually told me to gather the video evidence myself.” Fortunately, that does exist but Rucker doesn’t want to share it right now and compromise the investigation.
“What’s so frustrating is that the police are so backed up with other stuff and this just falls between the cracks,” said Weber. He said that after the first break-in, police obtained fingerprints from a whiskey bottle. As far as he knows, those have never been processed by the lab. “I talked to an investigator with HPD several times and I thought we were getting somewhere there but he’s like, ‘Honestly, the lab is so backed up. DNA samples are extremely hard to nail down and prioritize.’ I don’t know if that police are understaffed massively—if there’s all this stuff stacked up at the lab.”
(For more on the problems the Houston Police Department has been dealing with for years in regards to crime scene forensics, see our recent story, “HPD Wants Its Crime Scene Unit Back. Crime Lab's Civilian Leadership Says No.”)
“It’s not a priority. At least, it doesn’t feel like a priority. They’ve done nothing different from our perspective. They were like, ‘Well, you know, we can start parking our car in the parking lot at night,’ but they haven’t done that,” said Weber.
In the meantime, some restaurant owners believe some of these criminals aren’t just random thugs. Maricela Bassler, chief brand officer at BB's Café, describes the organized activity captured in the video footage of a break-in at the Heights location. “They cut through glass, walls and even wear red lights on their heads and crawl on the floor to not trip any alarms,” she says. “They even have a guy on stand by to call when they can't get into the safe. They couldn't get into ours and our footage shows them calling in reinforcements. They eventually got in, of course.”
She’s also convinced that the burglars had been watching business operations so they’d know exactly what time to go in. “They knew when the last people would leave on that day,” she said. “Our employees had just locked up when it happened!”
In light of these developments, what can restaurant and bar owners do to protect their businesses? Weber says, “You know that thing about not keeping anything in your car and keeping it unlocked so that they don’t have a hard time getting in and don’t mess anything up? It’s the same mentality. Of course we don’t leave the door unlocked but all anyone has to do to break into a restaurant is throw a brick through a window and crawl in. They’re only going to be in from 90 seconds to a couple of minutes. They really have to get in and get out. We make it as difficult as we can within reason for them to spend a short amount of time there.”
Weber says no cash is left at night, the safe is difficult to get to and even if someone can get to it, it would take a while to access anything inside. All lights are left on inside Eight Row Flint and, unlike at other restaurants and bars, cameras are mounted at face-level, not to the ceiling, which is useless if someone is wearing a baseball cap and doesn’t look up.
Ana Beaven of Cuchara says that after Max’s Wine Dive next door was broken into four times, she and co-owner Charlie McDaniel decided to join forces with their neighbor and hire private security. “We’re right next door. It was just a matter of time,” she said. “It’s a $1,000 a week per restaurant. It’s $45 an hour and the guy has to spend at least eight hours every day, seven days a week. It’s a lot of money,” she said.
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She also sent an employee to speak to HPD officers at an East Montrose Civic Association meeting. “They just give you a number and say, ‘Well, if you see anything weird, call us.’” Beaven says that she talked with city council member Ellen Cohen about the issue and was told there just aren’t enough police officers.
Jonathan Horowitz is the president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association and shares the view that much of the responsibility for crime prevention, identification of criminals and gathering of evidence is falling inappropriately on the shoulders of restaurant owners. “For the most part, the onus has been put on the business owner to try and gather evidence to be able to track these [criminals] down. It’s tough and it’s very disruptive to an ongoing business to try and deal with these things all the time. Some of these places have been hit four or five times. It’s bad. It’s definitely getting worse and is more prevalent and more frequent.”
Horowitz hopes to improve communication between restaurant owners and HPD with the goal of reducing the rash of break-ins and vandalism. “We want to let the city and HPD know that we’re going to be more active in interacting with them and communicating with them to try and help protect the restaurant industry.”
We’ve contacted the Houston Police Department and requested the current statistic on restaurant break-ins as compared to last year. We’ve also requested information on what they’ve been doing to catch the burglars or prevent future victimization of restaurant owners and will update this article if we receive a statement.