Senior Manager, Communications and Strategy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
September 26, 2023
Businesses across the United States are facing a significant increase in retail theft, organized retail crime, and property damage. Many small businesses struggle to stay open in local communities that are no longer safe for their customers and employees.
Businesses are reeling from the impact of current laws that limit law enforcement and from too many prosecutors who refuse to hold criminals accountable. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey shows that over half of small businesses say they have been targeted by retail theft, while nearly half say the issue has gotten worse.
For a real-world perspective on rising retail crime and its impact on small businesses, we spoke with Hrag Kalebjian, a member of the Chamber’s Small Business Council and owner of Henry’s House of Coffee, a small-batch coffee roaster in San Francisco's Sunset District serving the community since 1965.
Chamber: Hrag, tell us a little bit about your family business.
Hrag: The business was started in 1965 by my uncle. He was an Armenian immigrant from Romania. He opened a European goods store where he happened to sell freshly roasted coffee, which was pretty rare at that time. My father purchased the store from him in 1983, and my family has been hand-roasting coffee ever since.
Chamber: How did you become involved in the family business?
Hrag: Growing up, I never thought being a part of the business was something I wanted to do. I majored in Economics, have an MBA, and I worked in corporate finance for about ten years. My interest was in data and analytics and how to tell stories based on numbers.
In 2012, my father was interested in retiring, and I looked at the numbers of the business and thought it was a fantastic opportunity, especially on the e-commerce side. I joined the business in July 2012, and I’ve been running Henry’s House of Coffee with my family ever since.
Chamber: Can you share an experience of “passing the torch” from father to son in terms of taking over daily operations?
Hrag: Three months in, I realized I had an opportunity to jump in and provide support to more smoothly run our operations. Being a coffee shop, we rely on milk for almost every product we sell, but we would often run out. I thought I would take the opportunity to streamline operations and ensure we never ran out of milk again.
When I showed my new milk order form to my father, I was surprised he was upset. I realized changing a process he had in place for decades made it a reality for him that things were changing. At that point, I made it my North Star to ensure everything I did honored this business he spent much of his life building.
Chamber: We know you have experienced a rise in crime in your neighborhood. Can you talk to us a little bit about what you’re seeing?
Hrag: The community we serve is the Sunset District of San Francisco. It has historically been a quiet bedroom community.
Like most areas, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the times and frequency customers visit our shop, which has impacted our operations. We’ve also seen a rise in crime, both stealing and property damage at our shop and in the neighborhood, as well as an increase in trash, abandoned personal belongings, drug paraphernalia, and human waste in the areas around our shop.
Chamber: What measures have you taken at your store to prevent stealing and property damage and deal with rising crime?
Hrag: Our store has been robbed two times since the beginning of the pandemic. They stole cash and a couple of iPads we used as registers. To help prevent it from happening again, we invested in an expensive metal gate for the front door. We also purchased shatterproof screens for our beautiful iconic San Francisco-style windows in the front of our building.
During the pandemic, we built a small parklet outside of our shop for customers to sit and enjoy their coffee. Unfortunately, we constantly deal with damage to our parklet and the seating we’ve provided there, creating more unforeseen costs for our business.
The costs associated with keeping people from breaking in and destroying our property add up, especially when business is still recovering from the economic downturn of the pandemic.
Chamber: What do you think is contributing to the rise in crime? What do you think can be done to curb it?
Hrag: A lack of leadership and the current laws we have in our area are contributing to rising crime. It's extremely hard for small businesses to implement any sort of change because of the leadership that we have here.
We also have laws in place that do not protect business owners or give us recourse to hold criminals accountable. With passage of Proposition 47, California made some non-violent property crimes, where the value does not exceed $950, into misdemeanors. If we’re able to catch a criminal in the act and they are arrested by police, we find they are often taken to jail, quickly released, and come back to our area.
When we speak to the police, we are told their hands are tied. They can’t do anything to prevent someone from repeatedly coming into our store and stealing or causing damage, aside from filing a restraining order. Unfortunately, we continue to see people return and keep stealing – it's a revolving door and nothing can be done with the current policies.
There needs to be consequences for stealing and property damage, or people will keep committing crimes that impact businesses like mine.