Fresno Chamber of Commerce Business News. Valley Business. Valley Stories.

FRESNO, Calif- In the heart of the Central Valley, a growing number of business owners find themselves trapped in an ongoing battle against a relentless wave of crime, leaving them with a sense of despair and a pressing need for effective solutions.

Richard Braden, the Chief Facilities Officer at Jem Restaurant Management Corporation, has faced continuous challenges as several of his quick-service restaurants remain targets for minor crimes, a notion that appears to have lost its sense of illegality.

This year, thousands have been allocated to repairs, additional security measures, and revenue losses resulting from closures caused by property damage.

These incidents encompass front doors being broken for the second time this year, resulting in nearly $15,000 in repair costs alone. The company was also forced to repair its exterior digital menu boards and its confirmation screen at another location after someone decided to break them earlier this year, costing over $35,000.

Another regrettable occurrence happened when an individual urinated in a restaurant lobby in front of customers after being instructed to leave following a disturbance. In incidents that occur almost daily, Braden reports that one individual, a family member of one of his now former employees was stabbed after that employee called them due to fear and safety concerns involving an unhoused individual.

“We are all family, our employees are family, our cashiers are family. When you get a call, and someone has attacked your family and you can’t do anything about it. What do you do,” asks Lorean Haupt, President of Jem Restaurant Management Corporation.

Violent crimes like these have impacted the number of customers who walk through their doors due to those same safety concerns, which has resulted in the closure of one location and several others that are now on a ‘watch list.’

Haupt and Braden are lifelong residents of this area, and as a result, they have witnessed the evolution of business operations over the years. Both have dedicated decades to this business, and they have noticed that with the rise in crime and the set increase in the minimum wage from $15.50 to $20 per hour, running a business in Fresno has become more challenging than it once was.

There is often a perception that business owners are “wealthy and well-off” but being in front of a business and having employees depend on them for their livelihood comes with a deep financial responsibility.

Business owners hope to shift the narrative and raise awareness among the public that both major and minor crimes have an impact that eventually forces businesses both large and small to close.

Copper wire also seems to be very popular among thieves.

Nick Rocca, Owner/Operator of Rocca Ranches, who specializes in commercial grape harvesting says he has experienced copper wire theft that has left his water pump well out of commission, alongside other neighboring ranches.

He says this is usually done by repeat offenders, who are already known to law enforcement for the same crime.

“Even if they [thieves] got caught red-handed and go to jail, they are out. There is no incentive for them not to do it, just a slap on the wrist.”

Rocca recently has been forced to budget for thefts, a concept that was not a thing a few years ago.

A total of $1,500 was spent on copper theft repairs, only for the same incident to repeat itself just one week later. In one year about $5,000 is spent repairing the damage caused by petty crimes on a single ranch.

Rocca is investing in signs, fences, and possible security cameras, which ultimately add to his costs on top of all the repairs.

“Unfortunately, the bad guys just walk down the rows and I can’t rope off every single row of a vineyard,” he said.

According to the owner of Gazebo Gardens, the cost of repairing the damage often exceeds the value of the stolen items. Consequently, it has become an unspoken practice to, in a way, inadvertently enable these criminals to reduce the financial burden of future repair costs.

The feeling of hopelessness often floods business owners as they want to protect their business for themselves, their families, and their employees.

In a small office building, several business tenants are continuing to deal with crimes that are disrupting their everyday business operations.

A co-owner of those offices, who is also a tenant in the building, reports that another tenant has fallen victim to the theft of the wheels belonging to their company’s cars on two separate occasions, in addition to the thefts of their license plates and multiple catalytic converters.

Plus, the presence of the unhoused in the area has created safety concerns for employees when walking between their vehicles to their offices, which in many cases, have left employees stationed in their cars until they feel safe enough to walk into their office.

“We are three women working in here by ourselves. I am not going to put myself in danger, I will honk and shout out to please move. I will park my car and wait for them to start leaving and I have instructed my team to do the same.”

Some of the incidents that have been observed include drug deals, indecent exposure, encampments, and public urination on or near this private property, just to name a few, the owner said.

The non-emergency Fresno Police number gets called by the tenants multiple times a week.

“Three to four times a week and when I am not calling is because okay, I am tired of calling,” said that same business owner, who in return–either does not see a response from Fresno Police as officers don’t make it out most of the time due to priority calls. But if they do come out they sympathize and a response often given is, “It’s all over Fresno, we can ask them to leave but we can’t do any more than that,” in reference to the unhoused.

The office building cannot afford to hire a private security company, however, the extra expense they’ve had to pocket was to hire a gardener who comes out daily to clean up after the unhoused trespassers who break into the dumpster area, break things, leave their belongings behind, which in return leaves the outside of the building unmanageable.

According to the co-owner of the office building, the gardeners were forced to trim certain hedges to deter individuals from using that area for illicit activities, including engaging in sexual acts.

CIS Security says a business that goes from no security to now needing some sort of security guard presence, that price tag can range from $10,000 to $200,000 a year.

In an effort to find a solution, the Homeless Assistance Response Team (HART) was contacted but their response was for the office tenants to hand out brochures with the available resources to those trespassing and loitering.

Some Available Resources: Housing and Homeless ServicesHousing Assistance, Poverello House, Department of Behavioral Health , National Alliance on Mental Health

The co-owner of the office building says they hope the reoccurring calls to Fresno Police will eventually trigger an action as they struggle to attract and keep tenants.

In the retail sector, a construction supply store says they are known for its customer service which is not well received by these thieves.

“That’s annoying to a thief because you’re sitting there asking, ‘What can I help you with, what do you need,’” said the owner.

The majority of thefts experienced at this store have been done by the unhoused population in the area, staff say they use the stolen items as a trade to get drugs or to break into other properties.

A red flag is also raised when employees see a group of two or more walk-in and split. One is usually the grabber, another is the spotter, plus a driver outside on standby. In a recent incident, a man was able to steal nearly $1,000 worth of items with the help of a getaway vehicle.

During another incident, employees successfully intervened and prevented a couple who managed to walk out the front doors with a cart full of merchandise and effectively recover the items that were almost stolen.

The construction supply store was no stranger to catalytic converter thefts in 2020. During that time, the company had about 18 catalytic converters stolen, mostly belonging to its work trucks. The financial burden of this alone left the owners out thousands.

About $94,000 a year is spent on hiring an overnight security guard, cameras, and extra personnel.

This owner says they do go through the process of reporting the crimes and understands that Fresno Police can only do so much.

As noticed, some of these Fresno business owners have chosen to remain anonymous to some degree. This anonymity may be due to safety and the fear of damaging one’s reputation, no one wants to be known as a business associated with crime.

Some of the incidents mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to incidents that have happened and continue to happen daily.

Uncertainties in Dealing with Insurance Companies

Business owners frequently grapple with the decision of whether to invoke their insurance policy following a theft, considering that the deductibles may render it not worthwhile in terms of time and effort with a risk of doing more harm than good.

After multiple or consistent claims an insurance company can decide to raise the deductible/premiums or even drop a business entirely.

“I think I probably would not have reported it [the crime]. It would have to of been something like $10,000 to $15,000 damage or above that because we know how that affects our [insurance] renewability and our rates,” says Lorraine Salazar, co-owner of Sal’s Mexican Restaurants in reference to a break-in they’ve had to their storage unit.

The same goes for Nick Rocca who does not report petty crimes to his insurance company.

“The insurance company is already threatening to not renew us,” said Rocca. “We’ve never had claims in 25 years and now we have 2 to 3 claims in a row and now I am a liability for the insurance companies.”

For the construction supply store, the owner was able to report about eight out of the 18 catalytic converter thefts to the insurance company but quickly realized it could backfire and decided to cover the cost themselves for the remainder of the thefts that continued to occur to protect their policy.

The Barriers of Fencing

The business owner from the office building has a plan to install a security fence around their building and parking lot due to the ongoing issue of petty crimes. The tenants within this business complex are increasingly concerned about trespassers on their private property and are seeking a more permanent solution. However, the process of adding a fence is not as straightforward as they initially thought.

According to this owner, a 6 ft.  wrought iron fence requires the City’s approval. To get the variance needed, they must create a plan and get it approved by the Fresno Planning and Development Department. A process that should take 60-90 days but could actually take about six months or longer, says the owner due to delays and proceedings.

Expressing frustration, the owner remarked, “On something like this [building a fence], we are trying to take care of it ourselves, we shouldn’t have to get a variance to get a nice fence and we should be able to get it done without having to wait.”

The estimated cost for the proposed fence is $20,00- $30,000.

The owner of the construction supply store says it took them over a year to get their electric guard dog fence approved by the City. When they finally received the green light, surprisingly the thefts decreased.  

“The City is part of the problem if they don’t allow business owners to protect themselves.”

Businesses cope with the idea that safeguarding their livelihoods from petty crimes in Fresno is a challenging task and the line between what is a crime and not has appeared to have faded.

Specific requirements for installing a security fencing, as outlined in SEC. 15-2009, which includes features like barbed wire, razor wire, and ultra-barrier, must be met.

For businesses in commercial districts, these types of security fencing mentioned above cannot be visible from any street, highway, public open space, recreation area, or residential district.

For businesses in the industrial district, it is prohibited from adding such security if it abuts or is within 100 ft. of a residential district, park, or other public open spaces

A portion of SEC. 15-2009 stipulates, “Prior to the installation of the security fencing, the fence owner shall obtain a permit and execute an agreement to defend, hold harmless, and indemnify the City against all claims related to the fencing.”

A business management consultant says visibility limitations alone are particularly difficult for a business to overcome.

Senate Bill 553

In the battle to protect their businesses, State Senator Dave Cortese’s Senate Bill 553 can appear to work against business owners.

SB 553 was introduced with the idea of protecting people from violence in the workplace. Nearly every employer in California will have to adopt a violence prevention plan for each work area and operation’s hazards. Included in the bill, the new workplace standards would prohibit store employees from fighting back against those who are committing theft and petty crimes.

“Enough is enough – the Legislature needs to stop excusing and enabling the crime wave that’s turning people around the state into victims,” said California Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher of District 3.

In August, a group of small business owners from across the state, along with lawmakers, gathered at the state capitol to voice their opposition to the bill, many saying this will encourage crime.

“Every business owner here has worked hard to pursue the American Dream. We create jobs, pay taxes and serve our communities,” said Jaskaran Sahota of JKSD Gas and Mini Marts.

The bill was signed by Gov. Newsom on September 30, it is set to go into effect on July 1, 2024.

Next Week- Petty Crimes, Big Impact, Part 2

The repetitive nature of these crimes has Fresno business owners also saying enough is enough, they hope to be part of the solution and be a helping hand in the process.

“I think this needs a concerted effort from the City and the County to be better at prosecuting these criminals and figure out how to work together on the petty thefts,” said Rocca. “And for people to know that Fresno is not the city to mess with because right now people just don’t care.”

This developing story begins to explore some of the aspects that businesses go through and the barriers that come with a hefty price tag as a result.

The deep dive continues with a sit-down meeting with Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama and a few members of the police force in regard to what is being done to combat these crimes and ensure accountability.