Running business while 39 weeks pregnant has been hard enough for 35-year-old Tea Lyfe owner Candy Gomez-Bui. But in the wee hours of Monday morning, the bubble tea cafe proprietor became victim of a string of burglaries that hit Vietnam Town, a plaza located in the heart of San Jose’s Little Saigon. Vietnamese restaurant Banh Quon Saigon and clothing store L’Amour Fashion were also hit by the theft.
According to Gomez-Bui, a masked man broke into her store while an accomplice waited in a car. This is the second time in as many weeks she has had to sweep up shattered glass, board up her windows and close her business for the day.
“It’s painful to see,” she said.
Surveillance video shows that at around 5:30am Monday, a man in a hoodie using an unidentified object broke into Tea Lyfe’s glass doors. He searches the store briefly—presumably for the cash register—before making off with a pair of tablets used for electronic purchases. The robber was inside for less than two minutes.
This week’s break-in follows an April 7 burglary that left the cafe’s cash register tampered with and its front glass doors smashed in.
“I feel like we are a target especially in an Asian plaza because a lot of businesses do cash only,” Gomez-Bui said in an interview a day after the latest incident.
Since the April 7 break-in, Gomez-Bui resolved not to keep any cash at the store. But after the cafe was broken into again this week, she’s at a loss for solutions.
“We just want an arrest,” she lamented.
Tea Lyfe wasn’t the only business burglarized this week, it is one of the more recognized as a venue for open mics and art galleries for college students.
“We have such a tight-knit family—customers and staff,” Gomez-Bui said. “People have been thoughtful. There have been so many messages to me on Instagram that I’ve barely had time to respond to them all.”
Since Monday’s smash-and-grab, Gomez-Bui has seen an outpouring of support from customers. Comments on the cafe’s Instagram account include heartfelt condolences, offers to buy multiple drinks and pledges to donate to help the business recover (the latter which Gomez-Bui said she politely declined).
“It gives me a lot of hope,” she said.
Gomez-Bui has since been toying around with solutions such as looking into 24-hour security guards and beefing up cameras. She has also considered placing an iron gate on her storefront—similar to those used to close liquor stores—but feels like that wouldn’t serve her customers well.
“An iron gate was suggested [to us] to be a good option, but having one in front of the store would make it look uninviting,” she explained. “What kind of message would that be sending our customers?”
Although she hasn’t completely discounted any solutions, Gomez-Bui says she’s reached out to the San Jose Police Department for help. She also met this week with fellow shop owners with the the Little Saigon Business Association.
Police have been assigned to both of Tea Lyfe’s cases, and Gomez-Bui has been given tips such as installing eye-level security cameras and keeping lights on. An SJPD vehicle was parked in the plaza when Gomez-Bui spoke to San Jose Inside, although it was unclear whether or not it was in response to the burglaries.
“I’m tired of seeing break-ins here,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
District 7 Councilwoman Maya Esparza, whose district encompasses Little Saigon, said she’s been working with businesses as well and attending meetings to address break-ins like the ones at Tea Lyfe.
“There’s been quite a bit of crime,” she said of the plaza. “We have a lot of extremely frustrated businesses. I’ve held meetings with the county prosecutor and with the businesses that were broken into. We’ve been trying to organize business associations and share info and connect the police department to them.”
But even Esparza admits that she, “doesn’t know what’s going on,” when it comes to the patterns of robberies. Capital Private Patrol, the security firm that manages the plaza, did not respond to a request for comment.
“I’m looking to provide relief,” she said. “The DA has supposedly looked into these cases and we’re waiting on them.”
Esparza noted that all three businesses were swift in reporting their break-ins, which she said was encouraging since some businesses don’t even bother to report crimes.
“It does feel like we’re neglected sometimes,” Gomez-Bui said of small business owners in the city’s largely Vietnamese and Latino East Side. “I want the city to know how frustrating it may be to have these things happen. I know Esparza and [Mayor Sam Liccardo] are working hard, but we still need resources here in Eastside San Jose. We don’t want customers to feel unsafe.”
Tea Lyfe’s new doors have been ordered to replace the two-week-old entrance that was installed after the first robbery on April 7. For now, a makeshift piece of plywood covers the large opening that was reduced to shattered glass. Gomez-Bui says the doors will be covered by insurance, but many of the other costs—consultations and cleanup, to name some—will have to come out of the small business’ pockets.
And if she decides to go that route, so would an iron gate.
“We work hard for what we have,” Gomez-Bui explained. “But criminals are bold. I’m afraid it might just be too much to deal with.”
Though Gomez-Bui is due to give birth any day now, she’s still behind the counter taking drinks and managing employees, and said she’s “thankful for all the support and prayers” offered to her. In turn, customers have been steadily coming in since Tuesday, and business continued this week as usual.
“People make it worthwhile,” she said.