The following is an open letter written by the owners of the Ballard-based Cheese Wizards food truck. Read our story here.
22nd February 2018
An open letter to Seattle’s Civic Leaders
Dear Mayor Durkan and members of the City Council: Lisa Herbold, Bruce Harrell, Kshama Sawant, Rob Johnson, Debora Juarez, Mike O’Brien, Sally Bagshaw, Teresa Mosqueda, and Lorena González, and Seattle’s (future) Police Chief
A Plea for Help from Seattle’s Smallest Small Businesses
My brother and I are the founders and owners of the Cheese Wizards, a Ballard based fantasy themed food truck that travels around Seattle making gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. We have been around for about six years, we make awesome food, pay our taxes, vote in local elections, and are a Seattle small business success story. We employ almost a dozen Seattleites, source our ingredients locally, have recently opened a small restaurant in Queen Anne, have a huge social media following, donate to our local food bank, and quite frankly, help make Seattle the cool city it is. Here’s our neat-o food truck; you may have even seen it rolling around downtown or nibbled on our scrumptious sandwiches.
That said, we are suffering. Not just us either. The small business community in Seattle is reeling from the absolute worst year we have ever experienced. I am writing to you on behalf of the entire community to beg for help. Property crime and vandalism is absolutely out of control.
I’ve been communicating with a number of owners and workers in the food truck and micro-restaurant community and we are all experiencing the same tidal wave of theft, burglary, and vandalism. Combined, we have over three or four hundred years of experience doing business in Seattle and the group is unanimous that crime has never, ever, been this bad. The severity of crime, right now, is shocking, and we see it getting worse by the day. Owners are terrified of the future. At the current rate, dozens of us will be shut down by the losses we are suffering due to increased criminal activity.
Mayor Durkan, we were so happy when you formed the Seattle Small Business Advisory Council. However, we were somewhat frustrated to see that the vast majority of members are from businesses that are huge when contrasted with ours and those of our peers. Even your representative from the mobile food community (all props to Marination) is leaps and bounds larger than the average food truck operation.
The littlest of the little guys still need a voice. We are a very vulnerable population; we are the smallest of the small. Many owners are first time entrepreneurs, staking years of personal savings and countless hours of unpaid work to turn their dreams into reality. A food truck is an entry into business ownership for many first generation Americans and minorities that lack the social framework to open a larger business. Despite the popular and romanticized image of food truck operators we live a very hard life. Margins are razor thin, the cost of doing business in Seattle is very high. In all honesty, despite hundred hour work weeks, many of us go unpaid or make pennies per hour to keep our businesses alive. Often, owners make less than our lowest paid employees. Our crew members are vulnerable too. Food workers can struggle to make ends meet and are rapidly getting priced out of the city where we work. For many, especially recent migrants, rehabilitated citizens from the penal system, and the handicapped, restaurant work is one of the few careers open to them. Small businesses like ours provide the foothold that keeps many Seattleites with a roof over their head and keeps their families fed. With the huge uptick in crime, we are all in very real danger of losing our livelihoods, and the same is true for our employees.
Crime isn’t new, we know that. Everyone likes to quote the tired adage that ‘it’s the price of doing business in a city’, but the amount we have been victimized has exponentially increased in the last year. Businesses that never had a issue for five years have filled out a half dozen police reports in as many months. We suffer near weekly break-ins, constant vandalisms, and brazen attempts to jimmy locks on our kitchens and our food trucks. Generators are cut from vehicles and windows are smashed just to get a handful of pennies out of an otherwise empty tip jar. Sometimes glass is getting broken just to snatch a bag of chips and a drink. Thefts are increasingly brazen and repetitive, with perpetrators showing no fear or arrest or repercussions, even hanging around the scene of previous crime, secure that any police response will be minimal or non-existent. It’s happening in every district in the city. With all due respect to the members of the new Small Business Advisory Council, I doubt any of them have to decide between buying a security camera or paying themselves for the week.
I do not exaggerate for the sake of argument. Please allow me to list just a few of the crimes our small businesses have experienced in just the last four or five months:
Farshid Varamini, The People’s Burger/Pioneer Grill:
“In the last three months, we have had 2 generators stolen, our hotdog cart vandalized, trailer broken into 2 times for soda, our van broken into for soda, trailer graffitied, our box truck broken into and items stolen from our commissary loading dock. I have worked in the Sodo neighborhood for the past 22 years and have never seen it this bad.”
Jessica Paul-Jones, Skillet:
“… this year has been especially challenging for us. The icing on the cake was our catering van being stolen from our parking lot 2 weekends ago.
We caught the burglar’s truck license plates on camera, and have yet to hear from the police on whether they plan on pursuing an investigation. In addition, we’ve had multiple food truck windows broken (or shot) out, a generator stolen, locks broken on our trucks and the interiors pillaged, our office was broken into TWICE in 2017 and a total of 4 laptops and 4 POS tablets were stolen along with a few hundred dollars in petty cash – it seems like every week presents a new act of vandalism or robbery.”
Phylicia Davidson, Ezell’s Express:
“The random vandalism cost us so much. We have had our water heater cover stolen, propane tanks tampered with and not to mention when our whole truck was stolen and all the damage that was caused.”
Jay Cascio, Delfino’s Chicago Style Pizza:
“Delfino’s truck parks in a secure, lighted lot in Ballard. It was broken into … All the cash, iPad, GPS, and various other things were stolen. We reported it at 8:30am and my driver had to sit there until around 2pm when the police finally arrived. Obviously, no business that day and a waste of employee pay…”
Andrea Ramos Moore, My GFF:
“GFF has most definitely noticed an uptick in crime and public drug use. We had an attempted cash bag/register theft last year at our downtown location. The year before that we were targeted at the Mercer Island Farmers Market and our cash bag was stolen. We’ve had to shoo people away from trying to open our van doors during our setup and breakdown. And most alarmingly, we’ve had folks take drugs (smoke from a pipe and shoot what I assume is heroine) right in front of us on the cart or in the alley where we load/unload. The after effects of the drug use surround us also in the form of nodders walking into our cart or customers as well as vomit and urine on the sidewalks and alleyways.”
Syd Suntha, Bread and Circuses:
“We’ve had our gas lines cut and syphoned at least 20 times… We’ve filed police reports and nothing has happened.” (Another food truck in our kitchen)… “is now moving out purely because of the crime. We had an employee that stole a bunch of money. We have a signed confession and video. When she didn’t pay us back we reported it, and” (the police) “haven’t done ****.”
James Barrington, Hallava Falafel:
“Hallava has been vandalized every four days (on average) down in sodo. It’s been so disheartening… Prior to 2017 we maybe got vandalized once a quarter. The vandalism is so bad we literally spent over 40k replacing/repairing/cleaning up after these break-ins in the last year. Last month we had two break-ins at two seperate locations within 48 hours of each other. **** is bananas!”
Ralph Murray, A and J Commissary:
“The lot that I operate to house as many as a dozen food trucks is the frequent victim of theft and vandalism. It is a more and more common occurrence. In addition to the losses that the food trucks incur, my business also suffers financially. The damage that is done to the perimeter fencing and other infrastructure located within my lot requires hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars of repair and preventative measures. Often the damage done to my facility grossly outweighs the cost of losses that the perpetrators get away with.
I have been told countless times by police to make sure I report the crime, as that is how resources are determined for allocation. But unfortunately you cannot report a burglary online and must call in the report. It is difficult to even get someone on the phone… and when you do get through on the phone it is hours, or days before an officer arrives. In the past I had resorted to just waiting for an officer to drive by, I would flag them down and initiate a report that way. Sadly, there are seemingly fewer and fewer officers patrolling the area at all, so this has become an ineffective solution for me as well.
Please know that this situation makes it very difficult operate a small business within the city.”
Ryan, Now Make Me A Sandwich, Valhalla Sandwiches:
“I had a generator ripped off last week.”
Babette Bates, Neema’s Comfort:
“Neema’s Comfort has also been hit this year, broke into our trailer, brought tools to tear the fence apart and stole a generator and busted up stuff on the way out. There has been at least four trucks in my commissary that has been hit this year… it’s bad.”
Joel Mathieson, Wicked Good Grinders:
Our commissary… “is constantly getting broken into. They cut right through the fence … and locks with portable angle grinders, showering sparks and making all kinds of racket. That’s just brazen. My own truck has been broken into and … my till cleaned out. We file police reports but the police say there’s nothing they can do. Others have had generators stolen. Property destroyed. Once while serving a guy came up and took money out of our tip jar. We called 911, following him through the city while on the phone with the dispatcher giving location updates but we couldn’t find police anywhere… Well the thief sat and ate chicken wings in front of us while we were helpless. One passerby even saw us following the man with a UW security guard and said “Hey you need to arrest that guy, that guy’s a thief.” He was clearly known in the neighborhood. We waited for 30 minutes but of course we finally had to leave and never did see an officer. More than an hour later I got a phone call from SPD but by that time it was way too late. I’m sure we will be hit again in one way or another and I don’t feel like it would do any good to call the police.”
Keith Mathewson, KBM Commissary Kitchens:
“At KBM commissary kitchen we have experienced as many break-ins in our two parking lots in the last six weeks then we have in the last 10 years…One of our trucks had their running generator stolen while they were in service at South Lake Union. It appears that there is an increasing number of the thefts targeting food trucks.”
Mike Hamm, Lula Salads:
Our truck was broken into while parked in a gated, “secure” lot in the Ballard area. While not much was taken, the time lost to the vandalism and damage was significant and costly. The commissary kitchen we use has also seen a ridiculous increase in theft over the past year.
Drea Mizer, Buddha Bruddah:
We have also experienced financial hardship due to both theft and vandalism…thieves cut through our security fence, broke our truck window, and stole about $1,000.00 in kitchen equipment. We had to replace everything immediately to be able to serve the next day and keep the truck running. Last month our newly painted brick and mortar location on Rainier Ave S was tagged… the cost of paint is close to $50/gallon and our time and public image were greatly impacted.
Bo and Tom Saxbe, Cheese Wizards:
“We’ve had three major recent thefts where our generator has been cut off the food truck, two in gated lots, which total about $14,000 in losses. We’ve had two attempted burglaries in the last three months, one of which resulted in the destruction of a custom painted glass door that the artist had painted with elvish runes. A month ago the truck suffered the theft of a propane heater and several acts of random but expensive vandalism. This week we had another burglary where the perpetrator got into our kitchen and robbed the safe of petty cash. We are constantly cleaning feces and needles up in our parking lot and in our doorway. The last calendar year we’ve had seven crimes committed against our business. Contrast that with just one in the previous five years.”
There are so many more stories like ours in every neighborhood. Each one is being told by someone who has staked almost everything they have to start a business in this city. We work so very hard to keep our heads above water and it doesn’t take much to push us under. At the current rate, without immediate and direct action from those in power to quickly curb property crime and vandalism, the city of Seattle is going to start losing its smallest and most unique businesses and many more people will lose their jobs. Many of our major losses are by organized criminals. Much of the damage is also being done by the drug addicted and desperate. We are watching it happen. We work in the industrial areas, in the cheaper places. We spend all day on the streets and we see what policy makers don’t. Permitting open drug use and failing to prosecute the property crime that supports that drug use is causing an explosion in both. As the population of the addicted grows, we see a direct increase in the destruction of our businesses.
We are witness to a massive failure by the city to protect us.
We understand the city is dealing with very complex issues but we beg that our voice be heard and that we be considered of value too. We need more police, right now. We need police that are free to arrest the criminals that are hurting us and who have the support of city governance to do their job. We need to see some accountability for the individuals committing these crimes. We need to hear from you, in positions of civic power, that the people who are putting it all on the line to start up the smallest businesses in Seattle are worth protecting. We need to break the rings of thieves who are organized and ruthlessly targeting the smallest businesses. Current policy and resource allocation is allowing these predators to thrive in Seattle. We cannot give the criminally active drug addicted a ‘pass’ either. So many innocent people are being hurt to support the drug habits of desperate users. We strongly believe that homelessness is not a crime, but expect criminal behavior to have consequences regardless of socio-economic standing. We also understand that we can’t cure a drug user by arresting them, but we can at least stop them from causing catastrophic damage to the people and businesses around them.
Some of the hardest working and most vulnerable people in the city are seeing their dreams getting derailed, right now.
Bo Saxbe, Cheese Wizards