In New Haven, Conn., a man broke into a Cuban restaurant and spent days drinking his way through the liquor selection. In San Jose, Calif., a restaurant owner watched from his phone as security cameras recorded a burglar’s helping himself to the best bottles in the bar. And in San Francisco, a restaurant in the city’s wholesale Flower Mart was robbed or vandalized four times in less than a month.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit small and independent restaurants hard, forcing owners to shutter dining rooms and lay off employees. But the shutdowns have done more than imperil the restaurants’ financial health — they have made the buildings themselves tempting targets for burglars emboldened by the quiet streets and deserted spaces.
Across the country, closed restaurants have been invaded by thieves who seem especially drawn to well-stocked liquor cabinets, and iPads and other equipment.
“It’s the perfect storm,” said Kam Razavi, an owner of the restaurant in San Jose, Loft Bar and Bistro. “They know everybody is probably at home with a loaded gun. They’re not going to go rob homes. They’re going to go to closed businesses.”
When his restaurant was broken into in early April, Mr. Razavi had already laid off most of his 75 or so employees, and was uncertain whether he would ever reopen. Now, he is out $5,000 from stolen alcohol, a broken door and cleanup costs. “It’s like somebody pouring salt on your wound,” he said.
Since New York City declared a state of emergency on March 12, the number of commercial burglaries has surged to 763, from 330 over the same period in 2019, the police said. More than 140 of those break-ins have taken place at restaurants, nearly three times as many as during the same time last year. Other retailers, like gas stations and candy stores, have also seen a big rise in thefts.
“They’re targeting the small merchants, they’re targeting eateries,” said Michael LiPetri, the chief of crime strategies for the New York City Police Department. “It’s outrageous.”
Mr. LiPetri said the department has reassigned detectives from other beats to go after burglars. In San Francisco, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association held conference calls this week in which a crime-prevention nonprofit group taught restaurant owners how to protect their businesses during the pandemic.
“There’s a perception that there could be more things of value in a restaurant,” said Laurie Thomas, the association’s acting executive director. “Alcohol has value. Some people think there’s still cash in the place.”
The San Francisco Police Department has increased patrols in neighborhoods populated by many small businesses. But extra patrols were not enough to protect Bechelli’s Flower Market Cafe, once a popular lunch spot for police officers stationed nearby. One night at the end of March, a thief climbed in through a small window at the back of the bar and stole about 20 bottles of liquor.
“We kind of figured it would be bound to happen,” said Jan Bechelli, who runs the restaurant with her husband, Mark. “When this is going on, people are going to react this way.”
The next day, Mr. Bechelli boarded up the window from the inside. Later that week, someone kicked through the same window, taking more alcohol.
Still, Mr. Bechelli resisted boarding up the entire restaurant. In its previous 32 years, the business had been broken into only once. Then two more windows were smashed, in apparent acts of vandalism. “After four of them, I realized that I had to do it,” Mr. Bechelli said.
Most restaurant owners who have had burglaries expect their insurance companies to cover at least a portion of the damage, though the pandemic has created backlogs for claims, delaying payments in some cases. The theft and vandalism cost the Bechellis about $6,000, only a third of which will be covered, they said.
The burglaries were yet another indignity in a month that had already been bad enough. Like many small restaurant owners, Mr. Bechelli has had to shut down his business and lay off valued employees. “It’s a violation,” he said. “It was hard to take.”
Some burglars haven’t gotten far. Shortly after the lockdown in New York, a would-be thief broke into Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, in Harlem, and put a few half-empty bottles of alcohol into a bag. When he came upstairs from the basement, police officers were waiting for him.
“It was the dumbest break-in ever,” said John Stage, the owner.
But other thieves have settled in for a marathon binge. Soul de Cuba, the New Haven cafe, hosted an unwelcome visitor for days.
On April 11, about an hour after the owner, Jesus Puerto, left, an intruder entered the deserted restaurant. He spent three days inside, drinking liquor and breaking bottles. By the time he was arrested, more than 70 bottles of alcohol were missing, contaminated or empty, police records show. Mr. Puerto estimated the break-in cost him at least $5,000, for professional cleanup, glassware, missing and damaged iPads and other goods.
But as news outlets reported the story, he said, he was surprised by an online accusation that he might have staged the intrusion to collect an insurance payment. “My insurance premium is not a low premium,” he said. “There is no money to be made in this. At all. What benefit would we have had?”
Like many restaurant owners, Mr. Razavi, in San Jose, expected the shutdown to last only a few weeks. When he closed his Loft Bar and Bistro, he cleared the bar on the street level and moved all the cash to a safe in the office. But he left the second-floor bar as it was.
Early one morning in April, two thieves broke through the door to a rooftop patio and crept to the upstairs bar. They stole about $2,200 worth of alcohol, mostly high-end tequilas, Mr. Razavi said. “They definitely knew their alcohol,” he said. “It wasn’t random, but it amazes me that they would do it for alcohol.”
In some states, a small handful of restaurants have begun to reopen, experimenting with socially distanced dining rooms and reusable menus. But across most of the country, restaurants are likely to stay closed for weeks or months.
So owners are seeking ways to keep their buildings safe. Many have boarded up windows. Others keep the lights on, or obsessively check the security feeds on their phones. Those who live near their restaurants drop by almost every day.
When Chris Tavelli went to check on his Pause Wine Bar, in San Francisco, in early April, he walked into a scene of destruction. The cash register was broken, and the burglar had made off with Mr. Tavelli’s prized collection of San Francisco Giants bobbleheads, which he had displayed at the back of the bar for years. “It was insult to injury,” Mr. Tavelli said.
But after news of the burglary spread, he received a series of unexpected gifts: replacement bobbleheads bought by his former customers. He had about 20 in his original collection. It has been four weeks since the burglary, and he has already replaced them all.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.