Two masked men burst into the Uptown restaurant Atchafalaya with handguns Thursday night, relieving diners of their cash and bringing to a boil a simmering sense that even the finest restaurants in New Orleans are not safe from crime.
In a scene seemingly carbon-copied from the August armed robbery at the restaurant Patois more than 2 miles farther Uptown, police said two men approached the eatery at 901 Louisiana Ave. about 9:45 p.m., wearing hoodies.
Atchafalaya manager Jake Miller spotted the men donning Velcro masks through a window and locked the front door, but the pair was able to break through it.
Once inside, the men ordered several of the eight to 10 staffers and roughly 15 patrons present to turn over their money and property. The men hit the bar’s cash register as well and then left, running toward the river.
No one was injured.
Atchafalaya owner Tony Tocco said that throughout the ordeal, staff and patrons alike showed “so much composure.”
In the brief moments before the robbers broke down the door, according to Tocco, Miller was able to prepare diners for the “ugly inevitable.” Customers seated at tables outside the restaurant continued dining unaware of the dramatic events transpiring inside, he said.
“You’re only as good as the people around you in this business, and let me tell you: Atchafalaya was very, very good last night,” Tocco said.
In marked contrast to the Aug. 20 armed robbery at Patois, where owner Leon Touzet said it took police almost a half-hour to arrive, officers arrived at Atchafalaya in about two minutes.
“The cops were here on a moment’s notice,” Tocco said. He said he was “very impressed” with their quick response and professionalism.
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said Friday that police were probing the obvious similarities between the robberies at Patois and Atchafalaya but were not ready to definitively connect the two hold-ups.
“We’re still working very hard on it,” he said of the Patois crime, which remains unsolved. “We’re just going to see it till the end.”
Even though response time did not appear to be an issue in the latest robbery, the recurrence of such a brazen crime again sparked outrage on social media and in political circles.
“This is out of control,” Mary Sonnier, a chef, posted on Twitter. “@MayorLandrieu when are you going to address the crime problem? We (citizens) are scared.”
“The truth is, right now, there is not a single time or place that is safe, and we cannot remember the last violence-free day in our communities,” City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said in a statement. “We are failing as a city to defend and protect our citizens.”
Armed robberies are on the rise throughout the city, according to statistics compiled by former city crime analyst Jeff Asher, who writes a blog about crime for The New Orleans Advocate. There were 693 armed robberies reported in 2013, then 931 in 2014, and, as of now, the city is on pace for 943 armed robberies this year.
Although armed robberies have increased Uptown, the worst-hit neighborhood has been New Orleans East. Police recorded a robbery in the 4700 block of Flake Avenue there about 12:30 a.m. Friday in which a 45-year-old man was stripped of his property.
As members of a bachelorette party clinked glasses inside Atchafalaya on Friday morning, neighbors dropped by in a show of support to shake Tocco’s hand. One well-wisher was Touzet, the Patois owner. He said his first thought upon hearing of the latest restaurant heist was, “Oh, not again.”
The entire New Orleans restaurant world — a lifeblood of the city’s vital tourism industry — has been discussing the robberies, Touzet said.
“We all talk,” he said. “We’re all friends. Everyone’s affected by it.”
Tocco said he is encouraging other restaurants and residents to install security cameras wherever they can. Another option for some dining spots may be hiring guards.
While some restaurants may blanch at the added cost of paying for a private security detail — which can start at $30 per hour — one longtime exception is Mandina’s Restaurant on busy Canal Street in Mid-City.
An off-duty officer has been a nightly fixture at the door of the popular neighborhood restaurant for as long as co-owner Cindy Mandina, 43, can remember.
Mandina is surprised that more restaurants haven’t followed suit.
“When I walk in the building, I’m walking backwards and forwards,” she said. “You’ve just got to be on guard.”
Staff writer Richard Thompson contributed to this report.