When three masked robbers burst into the small Uptown restaurant Patois about 11 p.m. Thursday, the first man they pulled a gun on was co-owner Leon Touzet.
At first he thought it was an employee’s bad joke. That impression didn’t last.
“The is not a ... joke!” one of the armed men yelled. “Get on the ground.”
For the next five or 10 minutes, the suspects raided the restaurant’s till, swiped wallets and cellphones from 15 terrified customers and kicked Touzet repeatedly.
Touzet said he thought about his daughter. “Oh, God,” he thought to himself. “This is how it goes down.”
Finally, he felt the hand of a colleague. The robbers were gone. They had vanished down Laurel Street.
The stunning robbery at Laurel and Webster streets set an otherwise quiet neighborhood on edge and left residents wondering anew about the city’s shrunken police force.
Touzet said it took police about 25 minutes to respond to the crime after the robbers had left.
The incident came at a time when the New Orleans Police Department is coping with a surge in armed robberies.
August is on pace to have more of them than any other month this year, according to crime analyst Jeff Asher. If things keep up at this pace, 107 stickups will be recorded this month — far above the 82 robberies recorded in July or 65 in June.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, speaking Friday morning at a ribbon-cutting for a new drugstore in the Lower 9th Ward, called the armed robbery at Patois “upsetting and infuriating.”
“We’re not going to stop until we find those individuals,” the mayor said, adding that it was “really one of the most brazen things we’ve seen in a long time.”
He was joined by Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, who defended the NOPD’s response despite the length of time it took for officers to arrive. Harrison said officers were chasing down suspects in several other robberies in the same area of Uptown, eventually arresting two 16-year-olds believed to be responsible for at least some of them.
Police said the first of those crimes happened about 9:30 p.m. in the 2700 block of Palmer Avenue. Three males approached a woman driver and began pulling on her car’s door handles, but she was able to escape.
About 10:40 p.m., another woman, 27, was carjacked in the 900 block of Cadiz Street. Again three males approached her while she was parking her car and told her to give them her keys. As she tried to run inside her house, one of the trio tackled her and took her keys. Another — armed with a gun — kicked her. The robbers then fled, police said.
Finally, about 11 p.m., there was another armed robbery at Prytania and St. Andrew streets. As a man and a woman stood at the corner, three people with guns forced them onto the ground and took a purse, an iPhone and car keys.
Police tracked the Hyundai Elantra stolen on Cadiz Street to Sixth and Carondelet streets and managed to chase down two of the people who bailed out of the vehicle.
Inside the stolen car, police said, they found a black semi-automatic handgun and stolen property.
Both of the arrested teenagers were booked on two counts of armed robbery, one count of attempted armed robbery and one count of possession of a firearm by a juvenile. Detectives from both the 2nd and 6th Districts were looking into whether the teens were involved in other recent Uptown robberies.
Touzet said the three men who invaded his restaurant appeared to be amateurs. After bursting through the door, they fumbled and started seeming anxious, he said. Along with the limited amount of cash available in the register — most of his business is done by credit card, he said — they also took a bottle of Grey Goose vodka.
“This is not ‘Ocean’s 11,’ ” he said.
The entire event was captured on recently installed high-definition surveillance cameras, which may aid police in finding the culprits, although their faces are not visible on the video.
Even Touzet said he doesn’t blame neighborhood cops, many of whom he knows on a personal basis, for the department’s slow response Thursday night. The two officers who eventually arrived, he said, “weren’t just sitting around sucking coffee.”
Instead, he blamed a long police backlog of calls for service, fueled by the force’s depleted ranks.
“Everything now is reactive,” said Touzet, who after a long and sleepless night was nursing a glass of Jack Daniels outside the restaurant he co-owns with chef Aaron Burgau on Friday morning. “I get it. It’s obviously a budget issue.”
Despite the news of the robbery, Touzet oversaw a packed lunchtime crowd Friday. A steady stream of neighbors dropped by with gifts or words of encouragement. One woman brought white orchids. “We’ll be back this weekend,” she said. Another, one of the restaurant’s regular suppliers, came by with a bottle of Laurent-Perrier 2012 Brut Champagne.
“I must have paid my invoices on time,” Touzet quipped.
The owner said he was still shaken by what happened but gratified by his community’s response.
“It’s a shame because we have such a loyal clientele,” he said, adding that actor Harry Shearer had just left before the robbers hit. “This is not cool with customers. This is going to be a poor Yelp review.”