Latino-owned businesses in North Philly are seeing a rash of armed robberies: ‘It was really traumatic’
Restaurants, cafes, and shops along Wyoming Avenue in Feltonville are banding together and demanding a stronger police presence.
The workers at Cafe Tinto were busy slinging calentao and Colombian breakfast sandwiches on Thursday just past 7 a.m. when two armed men burst into the store and demanded every employee and customer get on the floor.
Store manager Daniela Garcia handed over the cash in the register and the men fled. She was terrified to reopen the bakery but felt it was her duty — Cafe Tinto has been in the same location along Wyoming Avenue in Feltonville for more than a decade, and “this is what we have worked for for so many years.”
Then on Saturday, the unthinkable happened. One of the men came back.
Garcia was in the store again, and said the man first ordered a breakfast sandwich, then threw a bag at her, demanded cash, and pointed a gun at a customer. Garcia ran toward the takeout window and climbed out. The man jumped over the counter and raided the cash drawer a second time.
“It was really traumatic,” she said. “I really thought, ‘This guy is going to shoot me.’”
The back-to-back incidents at Cafe Tinto are among a rash of more than a dozen armed robberies that have taken place in the Feltonville and Hunting Park sections of North Philadelphia over the last three weeks, according to police. Most of the robberies were of Latino-owned restaurants, hookah shops, and corner stores, some of which line Wyoming Avenue, a bustling business corridor in the heart of Feltonville.
The robberies reached a fever pitch Monday. Less than four blocks from where business owners were about to meet with community stakeholders to discuss the recent robberies and the police response, another restaurant on Wyoming Avenue was robbed at about noon.
And just before 1:30 p.m. on the 4500 block of D Street — a few blocks off of the avenue — a 20-year-old man tried to rob a corner store and was shot in the shoulder by the store owner, police said. The man was taken to Albert Einstein Medical Center and hospitalized in stable condition. He was being held in custody Monday.
Twenty-fifth District Police Capt. Javier Rodriguez said investigators are still working to determine whether the man was connected to the recent string of robberies.
He said all the incidents that have been reported over the last several weeks involved armed thieves. No other injuries have been reported, he said, “but it’s no less traumatizing to the victims.”
Garcia and other managers and store owners in the area expressed some dismay at the official response. She said 911 operators didn’t pick up for minutes when they called to report the crime in progress Saturday. And she said detectives who arrived on scene told workers that the department is working to respond and to quickly process evidence, but is “understaffed.”
At-large Councilmember David Oh, who met with the business owners this week, said he is facilitating a virtual meeting between community leaders in the neighborhood and police brass. He said the owners he spoke to are “trying to be understanding, yet they feel neglected.”
“They expect more [from police],” he said. “Their concern is we have someone out there who is brazen enough to come back.”
“It’s no secret that we do need officers,” Rodriguez said, “but we are doing the best we can with what we have.” Department leaders have said for months that they’re down hundreds of officers citywide amid a wave of retirements and challenges recruiting new cops.
Still, Rodriguez said the district is increasing patrols along the Wyoming Avenue corridor and is meeting with business owners to educate them on “target hardening,” a police term that can refer to implementing stronger building security or installing surveillance cameras.
He said the most important thing is that police know when and where incidents take place so they can better target their resources. The immigrant-heavy community may sometimes be targeted by robbers who think they employ undocumented workers and won’t report crimes to police.
“We’re not Immigration,” Rodriguez said. “That’s not of concern to us.”
Businesses along the corridor were trying this week to make do, even amid the fear. Garcia said Cafe Tinto set up a tent outside and in the open to sell sandwiches and baked goods, and she implored customers to continue coming to the corridor and supporting the businesses there.
“We cannot close,” she said. “Our employees have to feed their kids.”