Oakland restaurants struggling with crime

When Oakland cafe owner Cortt Dunlap emailed his insurance agent in January, he got some shocking news: His carrier of 15 years was dropping him. 

His downtown coffee shop, Awaken Cafe & Roasting, had been hit by crime too frequently, Farmers Insurance decided. It had been vandalized once in 2020 and burglarized twice in 2022, including one time when a person threw a trash can into the Broadway cafe’s front windows. Then, in December, someone stole the catalytic converter from Awaken’s cargo van. Dunlap’s claims had reached a “severity greater than anticipated in our rate structure,” Farmers Insurance wrote in a nonrenewal letter.

Dunlap couldn’t find another major insurance company that would cover his business, so he eventually patched together policies from three companies that provide less coverage. His new property policy, for example, doesn’t cover theft or vandalism.

Dunlap’s insurance challenges are one symptom of a broader issue that restaurant and bar owners say feels like a huge weight on downtown Oakland: crime. They’re spending thousands of dollars to fix broken windows on a regular basis. They’ve installed security gates, door barriers and glass-break alarm sensors. They tell customers not to leave anything visible in their cars. They remind each other to be safe, especially since an Oakland baker died after a brutal robbery on a February afternoon.

They say they feel demoralized and helpless, unsure how to fix what feels like the issue of the moment for restaurants and bars in parts of the Bay Area — particularly in Oakland and San Francisco.

“It’s like a war zone,” said Denise Huynh of Vietnamese restaurant Tay Ho, which was broken into three times in March. “I’m afraid to hear my phone beep in the early morning because it’s the thing I dread the most. It’s one of those nightmares that keeps recurring.”

Oakland restaurants struggling with crime

Low Bar general manager Nick Fittipaldi pushes back a gate from the front door in Oakland. The gate is extended out after closing time in an attempt to prevent burglary. 

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

While the number of reported crimes related to theft and vandalism in downtown Oakland dropped dramatically in 2020, probably because of a pandemic-era slowdown in commercial activity, reported rates of these crime types soared starting around last April. The city reported a monthly average of 100 to 120 crimes related to theft, commercial burglary, robbery or vandalism throughout most of 2022, higher than any period in 2019 through 2021. But as of late 2022 and early 2023, these kinds of crime appear to be falling once again. (Oakland Police Department data includes only crimes reported to police and may not accurately capture month-to-month changes in crime rates, especially for specific types of crime.) 

Last week, Oakland Police Capt. David Elzey announced that the department would respond to a spike in commercial burglaries — over a dozen reported citywide in five days — by deploying additional officers to the affected neighborhoods. (The Chronicle requested police data to corroborate this, but the department declined, citing the city’s recent ransomware attack.) The Police Department also suggested owners hire private security and not keep valuables or large amounts of cash inside their businesses.

The Oakland Police Department did not respond to other questions for this article.

Downtown business owners say crime feels more frequent and brazen than at any time they can remember. About a month ago, Farley’s East, Asha Tea House, the Melt and Parche, all within a few blocks of each other, were broken into on the same day. 

Popular cocktail spot Low Bar on Webster Street was burglarized five times in five weeks between Christmas and mid-January, said co-owners Matt Meyer and Daniel Paez. One time, the burglars smashed the front door and stole keys, something the owners didn’t realize until the thieves came back the next night and let themselves in. 

One night, when Meyer was out on paternity leave for his first child, the bar owners dropped everything to respond to a call from their security system at 3 a.m. The pair built a makeshift barricade to protect the broken front door until it could be fixed, using a blanket, tables, chairs and a life-size cutout of Buddy from “Elf” to make it look like someone was standing inside. 

They posted about the crimes a few times on Instagram. 

“But after so many times, it just gets old,” Meyer said. “You feel like people don’t want to see this anymore. You feel alone in a way.”

Low Bar has reinforced its door frame in an attempt to prevent burglary.

Low Bar has reinforced its door frame in an attempt to prevent burglary.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

They said they’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on security upgrades for Low Bar, including a security gate and a barrier to prevent people from prying the door open. They filed police reports for all five incidents, but there was little the police could do at that point.

“We want this neighborhood to thrive,” Paez said. “We’re just trying to protect ourselves so we can continue being here.”

Owners say the cost of crime is a serious financial burden, though it’s not yet putting them out of business. In many cases, the cost of repairing a smashed window isn’t enough to reach a business’ insurance deductible, so they pay out of pocket. Some owners are also hesitant to file too many insurance claims, worried it will lead to increased premiums or, like Dunlap, being dropped entirely.

Insurance companies may be shying away from working with businesses in this area, said Oakland broker Xavier Quan of David E. Quan Insurance Agency. William Tsui of hit Oakland bar Viridian recently tried shopping around for more competitive rates and said he couldn’t find a company willing to underwrite a bar in this ZIP code. 

“It makes business more difficult,” Tsui said. “It feels bleak.”

The increase in crime comes as many restaurants and bars are struggling with lingering effects of the pandemic and unpredictable sales. 

“In the restaurant industry, the margins are so slim that when there’s an unexpected expense like this and it’s happening regularly, it’s cutting into your profits fairly significantly,” said Farley’s owner Chris Hillyard. “People may come into the cafe and see a line and think everything’s great, but one broken window wipes the day’s profit.”

Owners are looking to the city to do more to support small businesses hit by crime. Several said they’d like the city to expand its Safety and Maintenance Ambassador Program, which employs full-time ambassadors to patrol, offer safety escorts and clean downtown Oakland. Having these unarmed patrols out later at night would be helpful, they said, since many break-ins happen late at night or early in the morning. 

Many owners said they’re frustrated by what feels like a lack of police response to break-ins: Officers show up, sometimes a few hours later, and take a report but can’t do much to apprehend the perpetrators. In February, city officials announced a new police foot patrol team would start walking business corridors on weekdays to address public safety concerns.

Paul Iglesias is chef-owner of Parche in Uptown Oakland, where restaurants and bars are struggling with break-ins.

Paul Iglesias is chef-owner of Parche in Uptown Oakland, where restaurants and bars are struggling with break-ins.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Awaken’s Dunlap recently applied for a city grant to pay for a roll-down security gate. He’s in talks with the city about a proposal that would ask downtown businesses to require employees work in person one day a week, which he hopes would restore the neighborhood’s vibrancy. His idea, called Oakland Work Wednesdays, was inspired by the robbery and death of Angel Cakes owner Jennifer Angel.

“Fighting crime just in responding to it case by case is maybe less effective than something that’s more about bringing people back and making it a place that will feel safe for families and folks to come to,” Dunlap said. 

Businesses are also starting to organize. A group of downtown and Uptown Oakland restaurant and bar operators, led by the owners of Bar Shiru, have started a coalition to share resources and respond collectively to crime and other pressing issues.

In February, after yet another break-in at his bar Sobre Mesa, owner Nelson German took to social media to vent. “The cost of doing business in Oakland at times makes us wonder if we should open in Walnut Creek, Palo Alto … or maybe Los Gatos instead,” he wrote on Instagram. In the comments, Oakland business owners traded sympathies and potential solutions, like a neighborhood watch for restaurants and bars.

German feels indebted to Oakland, the city where he opened his first-ever restaurant, Alamar Kitchen & Bar. But it’s hard not to consider relocating. 

“That post was just talking from the heart: that feeling of you’re down, but you don’t want to give up, but part of you does,” he said. “What do you do?”

Reach Elena Kadvany: [email protected]; Twitter: @ekadvany


You May Also Like

More From Author