At around 9 p.m. on November 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 the Whiteaker neighborhood of Eugene, had been stolen.
A window was smashed, and although no money was stolen, the iPad with the cart’s POS system went missing. The Greenwoods had to replace the broken window and all the food in the cart in case the thief contaminated it. In total, the losses totaled around $400, but Dove Greenwood says it’s probably more, considering they had to waste a day’s work repairing and fortifying their cart.
“It’s really upsetting when you get ripped off and still have to greet customers with a smile,” she says. “They would never know something had happened to us.”
Cheese Bliss and other food cart businesses in Eugene have suffered a wave of thefts in recent months, leading owners to tighten security measures. And as property crimes continue to be common in Eugene, business owners say the Eugene Police Department has failed to adequately address the issue.
A few weeks before Cheese Bliss was robbed, Clarita Valentin received a call from her father, with whom she co-owns Coco Loco – a food cart located just four blocks behind the Beergarden Tavern. He had come to work that morning to find a cracked window, a broken doorknob and a missing iPad – the result of a burglary spree that had targeted several Beergarden food carts in a single night.
“They didn’t touch the cash register,” says Valentin. “I think they were running out of time or something because they had already broken into the other cart.”
Ben Maude and James Panek – co-owners of Poutine on the Ritz at Oakshire Brewing – were robbed on November 27. Someone broke down the door and took away a brand new generator, propane regulator and stereo worth over $2,000 in damage.
“They took just about everything of value from us,” says Maude.
Eugene Police Department Director of Public Information Melinda McLaughlin said the burglary investigation remains open and no suspects have been charged.
In a Nov. 15 press conference, EPD property crime sergeant Wayne Dorman said the burglaries began in October. According to McLaughlin, 18 thefts of food and coffee carts were reported between October 3 and November 15. While food truck thefts have occurred sporadically in the past, the recent wave represents an unprecedented spike. Contrary to Valentin’s experience, the EPD press release indicates that it was mainly cash registers that were stolen.
“It’s pretty clear that we have a streak going,” Dorman said. “Someone is targeting them specifically to break in.”
Burglaries have occurred across the city, but food cart business owners in the Whiteaker neighborhood say they are used to frequent property crime and a low police presence.
Maude describes herself as a “prolific food trucker” and has lived in Pentecost for most of her life. Poutine on the Ritz is his third food truck, and while he’s wary of the risks involved in operating here, he says its high concentration of drinking establishments makes it a great place to attract customers.
“It’s a tough neighborhood,” he said, “but it’s also a popular neighborhood – and it’s my neighborhood.”
Food carts offer more limited menus than traditional restaurants, pay high rents to landlords, and are subject to seasonal fluctuations in sales. All of this makes the additional costs of replacing stolen items and increasing security particularly damaging to revenue. And many landlords sign contracts with their landlords, stating that all liability for damage to the property rests with them.
At the Nov. 15 EPD press conference, Dorman asked all food cart owners to report thefts when they occur.
“It really helps if we can get notified of these burglaries as soon as possible,” he said. “You never know what little piece is going to potentially make a difference.”
But Greenwood isn’t sure if calling the police is worth it. She says she hasn’t received any follow-up on her case, and with no change in police presence in the area and no suspects 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.”
As well as installing security cameras and reinforcing doors and windows, she and her husband have considered hiring private security to monitor the cart overnight, although that would likely be beyond their budget, she says.
From Greenwood’s perspective, protecting the food carts is not a priority for the EPD. “We pay our taxes, we serve the same people who 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 Putin on the Ritz, says he would only call the police in the event of a future theft to file an insurance claim on his losses. Insurance rates go up when they file a police report, so if the total damage isn’t worth filing a claim, then neither is calling the police.
“If it’s not worth the insurance claim, then I don’t file a report,” he says.
Valentin says she’ll probably call the police if it happens again, but she doesn’t believe they’ll be able to find a suspect or do anything to prevent future thefts.
“What can they do with petty crimes? said Valentine. “They really don’t care, I guess.”
McLaughlin said Weekly Eugene in an email that because the thefts occurred throughout the city, targeted patrols are unlikely to prevent future thefts.
“Patrol officers are aware of break-ins and have been asked to spend time monitoring suspicious activity around food carts,” she wrote. “However, the crimes have been so widespread that targeted patrols would not be effective.”