If it seems like more Houston restaurants are being broken into these days, you're not just imagining it.
According to statistics received from the Houston Police Department, burglaries targeting restaurants are up 27.3 percent over last year. Citywide, there were 147 in a 90-day period in 2015. For the same period in 2016, there were 202.
Recent targets include Gatlin’s BBQ in Oak Forest, which was broken into last Thursday. According to owner and pitmaster Greg Gatlin, the thieves broke the front door and grabbed two televisions. He says his is just one of several businesses in the area that have been broken into recently, including Marco’s Pizza and an insurance agency.
Add these to an ever-growing list that includes The Union Kitchen in the Memorial area, where owner Paul Miller said the crooks got away with expensive wine. Just a few weeks later, another of his restaurants, Jax Grill on Shepherd, was hit. That burglary was less successful. Miller said they only got away with cheap booze — but that’s cold comfort when you're having to pay to replace the front door glass.
After the article on Jax Grill, another restaurant quickly expressed sympathy to Miller: Cedar Creek Cafe, which is less than three miles away from both Jax Grill and Gatlin’s BBQ. The representative who manages the Cedar Creek Twitter account said it’s been broken into a dozen times just this year (and it’s only June).
According to a report by KHOU Channel 11, other locations by the same restaurant group — Onion Creek, Dry Creek, Canyon Creek and and Lowbrow — have also been hit. KHOU’s website has dramatic footage of some of the break-ins, showing burly, masked men beating on safes and even surveillance cameras with crowbars and sledgehammers.
A map displayed in a KTRK Channel 13 video added more restaurants and bars to the list of recent victims: Little J’s, Revelry on Richmond and an unidentified wine bar in Montrose.
The most obvious common thread is that the burglaries have been executed “smash-and-grab” style. Thieves pry open doors with crowbars or bust through the glass with sledgehammers, grab what they can find within a few minutes and get out. Even in cases where a monitored alarm is triggered, the criminals are out the door within just a few minutes — too quickly for police to get there in time. Masks are usually used to obscure their faces from surveillance cameras, so it's almost impossible to identify the suspects.
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In some cases, restaurant owners believe the crooks have “cased” their businesses ahead of time, buying just small food or drink items so they can get a good look around and identify what they want to steal. “They’re so quick now and know what they’re going to get — it’s so in-and-out,” said Gatlin.
He believes that the key to stopping these thefts is to rally the cooperation of fellow restaurant owners and “getting with our local precincts to see exactly how they can patrol and see if there are any patterns, like when they’re breaking in and so forth. We need to talk with these precincts and see if they can be around and be a greater presence so it isn’t so easy for [the thieves] to do this.”
Public information officer Jodi Silva at the Houston Police Department recommends that, in addition to a monitored alarm system, business owners need to ensure the exteriors of buildings are well-lit and that landscaping is kept low for maximum visibility. That way, there's nowhere for thieves to hide.
Silva also says that, as a service to the community, the Houston Police Department can be asked to conduct a survey of the property and advise restaurant owners what they can do to better protect their space. Those interested can contact their local precinct or call the public affairs division at 713-308-3200 and ask about the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) program.