Around 9 pm on Nov. 11, Dove and James Greenwood received a phone call from the police. Their food cart, Cheese Bliss, which is parked in front of Heritage Distilling in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood, had been robbed.
A window was smashed, and although no cash was stolen, the iPad with the cart’s point of sale system was gone. The Greenwoods had to replace the broken window and all of the cart’s food in case the thief had contaminated it. All in all, losses totaled about $400, but Dove Greenwood says it’s probably more, given they had to lose a day of business repairing and fortifying their cart.
“It’s really upsetting when you’re getting ripped off and you still have to greet customers with a smile,” she says. “They’d never know that something had happened to us.”
Cheese Bliss and other food cart businesses in Eugene have suffered a wave of robberies in recent months, leading owners to ramp up security measures. And as property crimes continue to be a regular occurrence in Eugene, businesses owners say the Eugene Police Department has failed to adequately address the problem.
A few weeks before Cheese Bliss was broken into, Clarita Valentin received a call from her father, with whom she co-owns Coco Loco — a food cart located just four blocks away behind the Beergarden taproom. He had come to work that morning to find a cracked window, a busted door handle and a missing iPad — the result of a burglary spree that had targeted multiple Beergarden food carts in a single night.
“They didn’t touch the cash register,” Valentin says. “I think they were running out of time or something because they’d already broken into the other cart.”
Ben Maude and James Panek — co-owners of Poutine on the Ritz at Oakshire Brewing — were robbed on Nov. 27. Someone broke open the door and took a brand-new generator, a propane regulator and a stereo system amounting to over $2,000 in damages.
“They took pretty much everything of value from us,” Maude says.
According to Eugene Police Department Public Information Director Melinda McLaughlin, investigation into the break-ins remains open and no suspect has been charged.
At a Nov. 15 press conference, EPD Property Crime Sergeant Wayne Dorman said the burglaries began in October. According to McLaughlin, there were 18 reported food and coffee cart robberies between Oct. 3 and Nov. 15. While food truck robberies have happened sporadically in the past, the recent wave represents an unprecedented uptick. Contrary to the Valentin’s experience, EPD’s press release says primarily cash registers have been stolen.
“It’s pretty clear we’ve got a series going,” Dorman said. “Somebody’s targeting them specifically to break into.”
The break-ins have been happening citywide, but food cart business owners in the Whiteaker neighborhood say they’re used to frequent property crimes and low police presence.
Maude describes himself as a “prolific food trucker” and has lived in the Whit for most of his life. Poutine on the Ritz is his third food truck, and while he’s wary of the risks involved in operating here, he says that its high concentration of drinking establishments makes it an ideal place for drawing customers.
“It’s a rough neighborhood,” he says, “but it’s also a popular neighborhood — and it’s my neighborhood.”
Food carts offer more limited menus than brick and mortar restaurants, pay high rents to landlords and are subject to seasonal fluctuations in sales. All of this makes the added costs of replacing stolen items and beefing up security especially damaging to revenue. And many owners sign contracts with their landlords, stating that all responsibility for damages on the property falls on them.
At the Nov. 15 EPD press conference, Dorman asked that all food cart owners report robberies when they happen.
“It really helps us if we can know about these burglaries as soon as possible,” he said. “You never know that one little piece that’s going to potentially make a difference.”
But Greenwood is unsure if calling the police is even worth it. She says she’s received no follow-up on her case, and with no change to police presence in the area and no suspect identified, she wonders if it would make more sense to look elsewhere to protect her business.
“Right now, I’m looking for a deterrent,” she says. “I’m so frustrated.”
Aside from installing security cameras and reinforcing doors and windows, she and her husband have considered hiring private security to watch the cart overnight, though it would probably be beyond their budget, she says.
From Greenwood’s perspective, protecting food carts is not one of the EPD’s priorities. “We pay our taxes, we serve the same people that are supposed to protect us, and yet they can’t patrol the area and they can’t give us any information,” Greenwood says.
Panek, co-owner of Poutine on the Ritz, says he’d only call the police in the event of a future robbery in order to file an insurance claim on his losses. Insurance rates go up when they file a police report, so if the total damages aren’t worth filing a claim, then calling the police isn’t either.
“If it’s not worth the insurance claim, then I’m not filing a report,” he says.
Valentin says she’ll probably call the police if it happens again, but she has little faith that they’ll actually succeed in finding a suspect or do anything to prevent future robberies.
“What can they do with minor crime?” Valentin says. “They don’t really care, I believe.”
McLaughlin told Eugene Weekly in an email that because the robberies have been happening citywide, targeted patrols are not likely to prevent future theft.
“Patrol officers are aware of the burglaries and have been asked to spend time watching for suspicious activity around the food carts,” she writes. “However, the crimes have been so spread out that focused patrols would not be effective.”