More windows smashed than burgers

Restaurateurs speak about the impact of crime on their profits and wellbeing

Dreamland Diner co-owner Kevin Ramberran (right) with team leader Sabrina Olson

Keeley Braunstein-Black

Elena Grande has worked at Mona Lisa Ristorante for almost all of her adult life. As operations manager of the family-run business, she works tirelessly to keep her family’s tradition alive.

“I’ve been here since I was 13. I would’ve started supervising when I was 19,” Grande says. “This isn’t just a job. It’s my entire life.”

Located in the heart of River Heights, where Grande grew up, the restaurant is like a second home to her. That’s why she felt she was personally transgressed when Mona Lisa Ristorante was robbed in the early hours of March 25.

“When they’re coming in, you feel a lot more violated. You feel more upset, because they’re in your space,” she says.

The thieves are purported to have broken in after hours while neighbour Stella’s, with whom Mona Lisa shares a front door, was still open. They stole approximately $500 worth of liquor before exiting through the front door and leaving it unlocked.

“It seems like they came in once, took what they could fit in their hands and then left,” Grande says. “Because of the high se- curity that they’ve enforced in the last four years in liquor stores, restaurants are now the easiest option.”

During the second break-in at Mona Lisa within the year, no employees or customers were hurt, and no physical damage was incurred.

Yet Grande, like many other restaurateurs and small business owners, is concerned about the effects of violent crime on their business, particularly on their operating costs. She reports having speakers, potted plants and trays of veal stolen during broad daylight, along with the restaurant’s garbage bin being set on fire.

“It’s almost like they’re getting a little bit ballsy. They’re getting too confident with their crimes,” she says.

A November 2023 report from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) reported that 54 per cent of Manitoba small businesses are impacted by crime, directly or indirectly.

The province has experienced the highest surge of crime between 2019-2022 among all Western Canadian provinces. Property damage, theft and public intoxication are just a few of the criminal factors contributing to hard times for local proprietors.

“It’s very difficult to run a restaurant these days. To also be hit with break-ins is just so hard and upsetting. It feels like you’re getting hit in every direction,” Grande says.

The study further stipulated that a staggering 78 per cent of Manitoba owners are actively concerned about the safety of their customers and employees.

“As far as I’m concerned, my preference is everybody there feels 100 per cent safe all of the time. I view that as one of the very few responsibilities of my job,” Kevin Ramberran, who manages the St. James Burger & Chip Co. and Dreamland Diner, says. Ramberran says he has seen a record number of incidents in his establishments in the past year. His brother Ravi also operates The Saint Restaurant & Pub and the Four Crowns Inn.

“Over at the Four Crowns, there’s lots of issues. But at St. James, 2023 was really hard for us. We got broken into three times over the year, windows smashed, issues with people under the influence misbehaving in the middle of the day,” Ramberran says.

He reports attempted attacks on staff and weapons thrown in his restaurants.

Both Grande and Ramberran elected to upgrade their security systems in response to crime, but that came at a hefty cost. Grande chose not to pursue an insurance claim over the stolen liquor for fear of insurance premiums that would dwarf the initial loss. Ramberran corroborates that this is a common story among businesses of their size.

In August of 2023, the provincial NDP government pledged to create a $2.5 million rebate program for security updates for small businesses, including security alarms and motion-sensor lights. But with a $300 maximum rebate per business, some feel that it simply isn’t enough to curb the cost of crime.

“We’re having to pay for a whole new system now. That’s going to cost another few hundred dollars, plus monthly fees ... at least over $1,000,” Grande says.

“If we take a $5,000 loss in a month (due to crime), that’s days or even weeks of profits. If we got broken into as often as we did that year, every year, I don’t know if this business would stay open,” Ramberran says.

Some businesses have taken justice into their own hands through a restorative approach. Verde Plant Design of the Osborne Village made a public call for a quiet resolution when their goods were stolen, resulting in full payment from one of the thieves. When the tip jar at Dreamland Diner was taken, a community worker confronted the perpetrator after they were posted online and convinced them to make amends.

“That was a beautiful situation that resolved within itself, but that doesn’t always happen,” Ramberran says.

Following the unprovoked stabbing of an 18-year-old Olive Garden employee in July, and the fatal assault of Cork & Flame owner Kyriakos Vogiatzakis this year right outside the restaurant, the consensus is that something needs to be done on a large level before things get any worse.

“Do we want to put our lives at risk? We do this for passion. We don’t do this to make a ton of money,” Grande says.

She asserts that change on the judiciary level is a must to keep small businesses safe.

“I think it’s partly the economy. But I also think it’s because we’re not being strict enough with how we’re dealing with criminals. They get brought in, and they know they’re going to get back out, and they only get better at it,” she says.

Ramberran believes that violent crime affecting small businesses is inevitable, and that steps that the city takes towards harm reduction will help in the long-term.

“We need to address the reason that desperation is occurring as a city,” he says. “We need to see our city’s resources targeted towards stopping this from happening in 10 years, rather than deal with the ones who are doing it right now.”

Both agree that the City of Winnipeg needs to address problems as soon as possible.

“Obviously, we’re doing something wrong here in Winnipeg if we have so much crime ... something we’re doing (is) not working,” Grande says.

“I don’t know how you can be in charge of a city that has severe violent crime at the level Winnipeg does and not be ashamed to lead that city,” Ramberran says. “We’re not going to be able to reinvigorate any areas of the city if the small business owners or operators are too afraid to operate.”

Published in Volume 78, Number 24 of The Uniter (April 4, 2024)

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