House committee hears how crime is hurting restaurants

The CEO of the Elmer's pancake chain shares how its units have been stung, even to the point of having to close.
crime at restaurants
Participants in the hearing agreed that something needs to be done about repeat offenders. | Photo: Shutterstock

The congressmen wanted a download on how crime is affecting small businesses like the 23 restaurants that make up the Elmer’s pancake chain, and CEO Jerry Scott had no trouble obliging them.

“In just the last six months, one of our locations experienced two armed robberies in the space of three weeks,” Scott said in his testimony Thursday before the U.S. House of Representatives Small Business Committee. “Two other locations have had armed robberies within the same time.

“A young guest was unable to produce a valid ID to purchase a beer. When he became abusive to the server, the guest was of course asked to leave,” Scott continued.  “He returned with a firearm, pointed it at the server, and threatened to kill the server.”

At an Elmer’s in Washington state, still within the last six months, “guests and employees have had over 15 vehicles broken into while dining or working, including the theft of the general manager’s vehicle,” Scott recounted.

He didn’t have time within his allotted five minutes to mention the crooks who drove a car into a unit so they could swipe its ATM. They not only got away with the machine and its cash, but also forced the restaurant to close while it spent $25,000 in repairs.

Nor could he get to the attack on a manager who’d asked a panhandler to stop bullying guests into giving him money as they entered the restaurant. That input was passed along to the Committee in written form.

But Scott had enough time at the microphone to show how rising crime was limiting the scope of where Elmer’s could operate.  

“The crime and homeless issues in the neighborhood around our north Portland [Ore.] location became so untenable that both guests and team members were no longer willing to come to the restaurant,” said Scott. “This restaurant, which had been one of the top sales locations in 2018, was permanently closed in April of 2021.

“Let me be clear: These criminal acts are not the fault of the police departments, sheriff departments, or public safety bureaus. They are doing their best with the resources they have,” said Scott. “But for restaurants, the costs of dealing with an increase in crime is significant.”

He cited the example of the Elmer’s in Tacoma, Wash. “Here’s a restaurant that used to be quite profitable,” he continued. “However, because of burgeoning crime, we have had to hire private security patrols. With security measures now costing $80,000 per year, this eats up 40% of the restaurant's profit before overhead and taxes.”

Scott appeared before the House Small Business Committee on behalf of the National Restaurant Association, which he serves as a director.

The hearings, explained Committee Chairman Roger Williams (R-Texas), was to look at how small Main Street businesses are being hurt by today’s crime levels.

Also testifying before the group were an expert on how antisemitism is directing more violence toward businesses run by Jewish entrepreneurs, and the police chief of Norwich, N.Y.

Neither the witnesses nor the congressmen questioning them put forth an ironclad way of shielding small businesses amid what virtually all characterized as a dramatic spike in crime. But there was agreement that more should be done to stop repeat offenders.

“The same criminals keep doing the same crime over and over,” said Scott. “The number one thing that could be done at the federal level is to address recidivism.”

He noted how one criminal who preyed on Elmer’s had come into the same restaurants three times in a single night. He added that police officers called to one of the restaurants often know the troublemaker who necessitated the call; they’ve seen the bad guy often enough to greet him by name.

Chairman Marshall cited a New York Times report that 327 suspected shoplifters in New York City had been collectively arrested more than 6,000 times, only to be spared prosecution in each instance. That’s one-third of all the shoplifting arrests that are made annually within the city.

Action is needed, said Scott. But “we cannot do it alone. We need your help.”

Until then, he said, “it’s employees on the front lines who are bearing the brunt of this.”

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