Lookout, a well-known and well-loved LGBTQ+ bar perched above a prominent intersection in San Francisco’s Castro District, celebrated its 16th anniversary last Friday with DJs and a happy hour buffet. But that same morning, in the wee hours, the venue had also experienced something considerably less festive: a break-in.
According to bar owner Chris Hastings, two men entered the building with a crowbar at 3:22 a.m. Friday, followed immediately by a third individual with a much larger tool. The team quickly found their way through the building, wearing masks, gloves and hoodies.
“They were very clearly professionals,” Hastings told The Standard after reviewing security camera footage. “They didn’t pay attention to anything of lower value. They were after the safes and found their way to them.”
The thieves returned to their car and brought out enough power tools to remove the safes in under four minutes. A neighbor happened to see this occur and called the San Francisco Police Department, which responded quickly, as the Bay Area Reporter first reported. The lights and sirens from the police vehicles, Hastings believes, likely scared the culprits into abandoning their attempted burglary.
Exterior security footage shared with The Standard shows a police vehicle drive past Lookout, heading west on 16th Street at approximately 3:30 a.m. A getaway SUV is parked outside the bar when another police vehicle pulls up behind it with its flashers on. The getaway SUV tentatively lurches forward a few times in preparation to escape when two men run out of the bar and get into it.
The SUV then makes an abrupt U-turn and drives away while the second SFPD vehicle remains parked. After several seconds, a police vehicle—likely the first one that drove past Lookout—pursues it. An officer gets out of the parked vehicle and walks toward the bar to conduct a walkthrough.
“The police were not able to catch them,” Hastings said. “This is my biggest frustration, and I feel for the police on this. The officers were frustrated that the protocol is not to engage in property crime. They were here fast and watched guys with a bag 10 feet from them.”
No staff were present, and no one was injured. The crew was professional, Hastings added, and the getaway vehicle was either stolen or had stolen plates.
The officers he spoke with said that outfits such as this are targeting small businesses like bars—which tend to keep sizable amounts of cash and often have ATMs on-site—across San Francisco.
As a bar owner who speaks regularly with other San Francisco bar owners, Hastings recognizes that his perspective will reflect his position in that industry. But after hearing from fellow proprietors—and seeing media reports of bars like SoMa’s Lone Star Saloon getting broken into—Hastings believes that a San Francisco Police Department policy not to pursue suspects in such instances unless an individual is in immediate physical danger has effectively invited late-night property crime against businesses like his.
At the same time, the risks of high-speed chases are real. In May, one involved a carjacking suspect who smashed into a bus stop in the Mission District, injuring four and killing one.
Reached for comment, the police department confirmed that an unsuccessful burglary had taken place.
“Upon arrival, officers observed two unknown suspects exit the business and get into an SUV,” an SFPD spokesperson told The Standard. “Officers attempted to conduct a traffic stop of the vehicle, but it fled the area.”
The San Francisco Police Commission did not return a request for comment.
Hastings does not believe the break-in was related to the bar’s anniversary, nor that it was a hate crime. But he’s certain the sophisticated perpetrators will return, and his employees are unnerved, so he has begun beefing up Lookout’s security measures—as have other bars in the Castro.
“I don’t think the general public is totally aware this is happening, and I think they should be,” he said. “The ‘see something, say something’ component is very real. If that neighbor hadn’t called, this could have been way, way worse.”
Other small business owners concurred.
“I’ve been hearing about this more and more with businesses with ATMs and cash on hand,” said Manny Yekutiel, the proprietor of Mission District event space Manny’s and a member of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Commission.
Referring to other recent episodes, he added, “At a market half a block away, they took a box cutter and cut open the gate and cut open the door in an attempt to steal the ATM. There was [an armed robbery at] Happy Donuts on Church and 24th. We really can’t afford things like this.”
In response to that incident, David Burke, an SFPD civilian public safety liaison who follows up with crime victims to provide tips on fortifications, told The Standard he was also seeing an uptick in crimes against small businesses for thefts of ATM machines. But the Happy Donuts episode was particularly brazen.
“This was an active robbery, a gun in your face. Most of these are usually done as a part of a burglary when places like this are closed,” Burke said. “They don't want to meet the people. They want to get your stuff and take it away.”
Organized teams of thieves who hit the same place more than once are hardly new, of course.
Lee Parmelee, the owner of the football-centric Bar on Dolores and a San Francisco bartender with some 40 years’ experience, said his venue had been broken into a few years before the pandemic while patrons were inside.
The culprits returned a month later, but unbeknown to Parmelee, the FBI and police department were outside conducting a sting operation. It was only through that effort he learned that similar teams had been operating throughout the Bay Area.
But lately, the tenor of the city has changed.
“Every single day, somebody in the Bar Owners Alliance has a break-in,” Parmelee said of a local Facebook group he belongs to.
After Covid, a feeling of hopelessness is spreading among the city’s small business owners, Yekutiel said. Merchants recognize the city is strapped but feel that they’re on their own.
“We rely on SFPD to stop crime and catch criminals,” he said. “But the business owners I’ve been in touch with, we’re tired of finger-pointing! The city has everything it needs to be able to address these issues. Business owners should not live in fear that their business is going to get attacked.”
George Kelly contributed reporting to this story.
Astrid Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org