After a series of brazen armed robberies Uptown in which masked men held up patrons and cleared out registers, more business owners are reaching into their own wallets to pay for private security details to stand guard outside their bars or restaurants.
By doing so, they’re absorbing an extra cost that eats into an already thin margin and that comes near the end of a slow dining season. But they’re also paying for a service that, they say, is necessary to provide customers and staff with peace of mind after the trio of daring mass holdups brought new focus to a recent rise in armed robberies and long-dwindling police staffing levels.
“Our clientele is very appreciative of it, and so we’re just going to have it in place until we feel comfortable,” said Mia Freiberger-Devillier, general manager and co-owner of La Petite Grocery in the 4200 block of Magazine Street, who hired a guard after some regulars told her they were fearful about dining out. “It’s just unfortunate at this point in time. I didn’t really feel like we had a choice.”
In the most recent case, three masked men wearing gloves and hoodies and armed with guns robbed patrons and the register at the Monkey Hill Bar in the 6100 block of Magazine Street just after 10 p.m. on Sept. 28.
Police have not definitively connected the holdup to strikingly similar ones in previous weeks at the Patois and Atchafalaya restaurants. As in the two earlier events, no one was injured.
Meanwhile, armed robberies are on the rise throughout the city: There were 693 reported in 2013, then 931 in 2014. As of last month, the city was on pace for 943 this year, according to statistics compiled by Jeff Asher, a former crime analyst for the city who now writes a blog about crime for The New Orleans Advocate.
It’s left some business owners looking for solutions.
“We have had a number of new requests from Uptown establishments in the last couple of weeks,” said John Salomone, director of the city’s Office of Police Secondary Employment, which coordinates the bulk of police detail work.
Salomone said some restaurants are “still in the preliminary stages of trying to figure out if they can get a coalition of restaurants together to jointly fund something. We are discussing the terms, including possible hours for the detail and which of the pay options they may want to use.”
Despite adding his own security detail, Scot Craig, who owns Katie’s Restaurant in the 3700 block of Iberville Street in Mid-City, said business has fallen off about 20 percent in the past few weeks, which he blames in part on the end of the slow summer season and what he perceives as a new anxiety among diners about going out.
“I just didn’t want to take any chances,” he said. “I don’t want to be the one to shoot somebody, so I just decided to do it.”
With business slumping, paying $150 per day for the detail has affected both his morale and bottom line.
“It hurts, but what hurts more than that is what’s happening to my city,” he said. “I was born and raised here, and it’s just been a major disappointment.”
Dick & Jenny’s co-owner Cristiano Raffignone also hired a private detail a few nights a week to patrol the entrance to his restaurant, tucked away in a Creole cottage in the 4500 block of Tchoupitoulas Street.
To Raffignone, the Monkey Hill robbery was the final straw. He believes the city should do more to help cash-strapped restaurants deal with the recent rash rather than have to pay out an extra $500 per week. “It’s kind of crazy that the city does not do anything about it,” he added.
Though he’s noticed more police presence passing through the area lately, Raffignone doesn’t believe they would be able to react as quickly as a private guard. “We still have to hire somebody, because they’re so fast — in five minutes, they come and get out,” he said.
Regular diners have taken notice of the new nightly fixtures.
Longtime restaurant critic Tom Fitzmorris has seen an uptick in security details watching over his regular spots. Even one — Frankie & Johnny’s in the 300 block of Arabella Street — has been announcing as much in recent radio ads.
But Fitzmorris believes it’s essential for restaurants and bars to be proactive with security, including hiring private details and keeping cash on-site at a minimum.
Restaurant and bar owners should tuck away large bills in a time-controlled drop safe, he said, and advertise outside that they don’t stash much money in the register.
Fitzmorris borrowed those ideas from his time working at a convenience store as a teenager: He was held up three times.
Most callers into his radio show have stopped talking about the robberies, which makes him think that it’s not dampening too many dinner plans.
“It’s just one of those things that people feel like it’s going to play itself out, and that’s that, but who knows?” he said. “I wouldn’t take a risk on that if it were me.”
If it lasts, many frequent diners — Fitzmorris included — will be looking to see if restaurants begin passing the extra security costs into menu prices, which, he said, have already climbed 5 to 10 percent in the decade since Hurricane Katrina. Those increases followed years of being stagnant, he added.
Other observers who specialize in policing or security measures say that adding an armed guard outside a bar or restaurant can be a deterrent to a potential robber. Other steps also should be taken, they say, such as not opening or closing a business alone, locking the front door when closing and installing alarms with activation switches located throughout the building.
Marlon Defillo, a former New Orleans Police Department deputy superintendent who retired in 2011 and founded a security firm called Crescent City Consulting, said he has received an influx of calls from restaurant and bar owners interested in hiring details, although his outfit mainly works with the film industry.
“You always will see these types of crimes occur, and they come every so often, so this is not unusual,” he said.
Marian Pierre, founder of Crescent Guardian, a Lakeview security firm, said she thinks Uptown business owners may be better off reaching a pact to split security services as a group or even developing a security district, joining dozens of others in the city that levy taxes or fees to pay for private patrols.
“They have to want this,” she said. “The Police Department can only do so much.”
Adding a security camera isn’t much good during a robbery, she said, unless someone is monitoring the feed on the other end. And retrofitting an existing camera system to use that kind of technology can cost thousands of dollars.
“You have to deal with the economics when you’re dealing with crime, and as long as it’s the haves and the have-nots, people are going to prey on the haves,” she said.
After the Sept. 28 robbery at nearby Monkey Hill, Nick Lama, the former chef de cuisine at Gautreau’s who opened Avo in the 5900 block of Magazine Street in the spring, decided he’d seen enough.
Lama had already been weighing the costs of hiring his own detail and made the call the next day.
Since late last month, his guard has been stationed outside every night the restaurant is open. “I think people definitely appreciate it, especially right after, when people definitely were a little shaken up,” he said. “I think it made people feel safe.”
By then, looming anxiety from the robberies had already hurt his business. Reviewing his reservation book provided a few clues, he said: The first two nights after the initial robberies showed “considerable cancellations; like around 30 to 40 people per night canceled.”
For a spot that seats about 80 people, he said, that lingering uneasiness “definitely cost us a lot of revenue.”
Avo runs on “very narrow margins, and having to pay for a detail adds up to about $1,200 per week.
“Especially as a new restaurant owner,” he said, “I can’t afford to keep that up. It would definitely break me to have to continue to pay that.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.