Dec 5, 2023 - News

D.C. restaurants are blowing their budgets on security

an illustration of a quarter styled like a dinner plate with a fork and knife

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Nightclubs and VIP parties all typically involve private security. But Surfside's taco window in Dupont Circle?

"That's crazy," owner Bo Blair tells Axios. And yet, the Georgetown Events restaurateur — behind a dozen D.C. businesses including Millie's and The Bullpen — says he's recently been spending upwards of $4,000 a week on hired guards at the 24-hour taquería just to keep employees and guests safe.

  • "Think about it, private security at a taco stand," says Blair. "It's like the Wild West."

Why it matters: Independent D.C. businesses — many of them restaurants — are increasingly using pricey security details to defend against rising crime in the city. Yet with operational costs skyrocketing, many worry that the tab for safety is unsustainable.

By the numbers: Greg Casten, whose restaurant The Point was the site of an outdoor shooting in October, says his hospitality group has increased its security spending to around $200,000 annually.

  • Georgetown Events has spent over $450,000 this year on their D.C. venues, which Blair says "are all impacted by crime, some on a daily basis."

What they're saying: Costs are snowballing, Blair tells Axios, and the restaurant group "cannot continue to pay what we're paying for security."

  • "We have to pay for security to make employees feel safe. Once an incident happens, turnover is high, and we're spending time and money on more training — it's like a hamster wheel."

Context: More local restaurants started contracting security officers during the pandemic to help enforce the city's strict COVID mandates, according to Donna Redman, executive director of business affairs at Whole Armor Executive Protection & Security Services.

  • The private security agency's owners built a 20-year reputation providing services to celebs like The Weeknd and splashy events including the mayor's inaugural ball. Suddenly their bread and butter was enforcing masks and policing streeteries for clients such as Le Diplomate, Knead Hospitality, and Swingers mini-golf bar.
  • Redman expected business to die down post-pandemic restrictions, but with the spike in violence, it only got busier. "It went from managing crowds to preventing crime."

How it works: Whole Armor charges around $25 and $45 an hour per security officer, depending on the restaurant's volume and whether they're armed.

  • Prevention is a priority — door checks and scanning crowds and patios for suspicious activity or inebriated guests.
  • Special police officers' duties are confined to business property due to D.C. regulations — what happens on public streets is Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) territory — though unarmed guards may escort staff to cars or Ubers if it's late. "We border the line a little bit, but there's only so much we can do," says Redman.
A private security guard dressed in all black outside Swingers minigolf club in Dupont Circle
Private security outside Swingers mini-golf in Dupont Circle. Photo courtesy of Whole Armor

Zoom in: Some local businesses enlist Reimbursable Detail Officers (RDOs), off-duty police officers who are part of a long-running joint project between MPD and the Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Administration (ABCA).

  • Bars, nightclubs, and other licensees can request these officers outside their establishments to act as a crime deterrent and oversee traffic and crowd control in public areas.
  • Unlike private officers, they're never allowed inside the business unless police action is required.

The intrigue: Depending on the time and need, the program isn't significantly less expensive than private details.

  • Businesses that engage in the program, which launched in 2005, can at minimum request two RDOs for three hours or more. Typically it's around $71 per officer an hour, but ABCA subsidizes the program and will cover up to 65% of costs for late-night services between 11:30pm and 5am, depending on city funding.
  • It's currently funded to the tune of $1.25 million through the end of the next fiscal year.

Yes, but: Off-duty police presence isn't always reliable, especially now given MPD shortages and the crime spike — Blair's reason for switching to private security.

  • "At times an officer will be assigned to an establishment, but because of this crime spree they'll be called to another location," said MPD RDO coordinator Brenda Smith during a presentation to local businesses. "Or they may have to sit or patrol an area where they expect a lot of crime to occur. There will be occasions where there will be no-shows."

The other side: Hired security isn't financially viable for a lot of businesses. Menomale, a popular Brookland pizzeria, was burglarized last week, which owner Mariya Rusciano described as a typical occurrence during the holiday season that can cost her business thousands of dollars.

  • She tells Axios that her family-run restaurant relies on less expensive security measures. "The biggest thing is we keep barely anything in stock — inventory is at a minimum" and they try not to keep much cash on hand.
  • "I'd rather give away a pizza than risk having cash on the premises."

Aaron McGovern a longtime D.C. operator behind Russia House in Dupont Circle, two Brine restaurant locations, and Biergarten Haus on H Street, NE — recently closed all of his businesses, citing crime as a top factor.

  • McGovern tells Axios he looked into the city's RDO security, especially after losing tens of thousands of dollars to burglaries and having employees assaulted. It only made him more frustrated.
  • "Why am I paying for more police presence when I pay it in taxes, and I pay a lot?"

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Georgetown Events has spent over $450,000 on security across their D.C. venues, not $92,000.

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