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Front Burner: Crime watch

Front Burner: Crime watch

When Steven Tolenoa stopped at a Seattle-area Denny’s for breakfast after working the night shift in January 2007, he didn’t know the restaurant had a history of problems during the dark, early-morning hours.

As was typical, the restaurant was busy with the “bar rush,” the period after area bars closed, when hungry revelers arrive seeking pancakes and eggs. Around 2 a.m., a fight broke out among some other patrons.

But when the man who started the fight left, Tolenoa and other bystanders thought it was over.

It wasn’t.

A few minutes later, the man returned with a gun, and fired randomly into the busy dining room. A bullet pierced Tolenoa’s spinal chord, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Another diner, Lisa Beltran-Walker, who also was not part of the initial dispute, was shot in the leg.

Tolenoa and Beltran-Walker sued Denny’s, claiming the 24-hour unit—which at the time was corporate-owned—had a history of security problems during late-night hours and that the company didn’t do enough to protect its customers.

Denny’s declined to comment on the pending litigation. But some observers say that incident and the resulting lawsuit are classic examples of what can happen when restaurant operators don’t have comprehensive security plans and policies in place.

Though violent-crime rates in general have fallen from the comparatively volatile 1990s, armed robberies, assaults and homicides remain an ever-present threat to the restaurant industry, especially brands with late-night or 24-hour service.

Recent headlines offer plenty of examples.

In early December, a man opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle at a Lynn, Mass., restaurant after employees refused to serve him alcohol because they believed he already was intoxicated. No one was hurt, and customers and employees tackled the man and called the police.

Restaurants in typically quiet Shelby, N.C., have been hit by a string of robberies in recent months. Since September, 22 armed attacks have been reported. In one incident, the owner of a Pancake House restaurant was shot in the leg. In another, gunmen jumped the counter at a KFC and held a pistol to an employee’s head.

In Memphis, Tenn., two armed robbers walked into busy restaurants filled with customers twice in one week in early December and demanded cash. During one of the robberies, the suspect held a gun to a 5-year-old child’s head in an effort to make the cashier empty the cash register faster.

After the economy took a nosedive in late 2008, some in the restaurant industry braced themselves for what they feared would be a spike in violent crime. Desperate times can force people to take desperate measures, they maintained.

So far, though, security officials across the country say they have yet to witness any related increase, and many point out that crime rates nationwide have fallen over recent years. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the number of violent and property crimes declined during the first six months of 2009, compared to the same year-earlier period. Specifically, violent crime decreased 4.4 percent, property crime fell 6.1 percent and arson was down 8.2 percent, marking the third consecutive year those rates have fallen. The number of murders during the first six months of 2009 decreased 10 percent.

At the same time—and possibly contributing to the falling rates—restaurant operators are employing increasingly sophisticated measures to protect property, workers and guests. These steps range from the use of high-tech safes that act like virtually impenetrable ATM machines to low-tech training about never opening the back door at night. And, as experts point out, operators cannot afford to let their guard down when it comes to averting crime.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says roughly 2 million workers each year are victims of workplace violence and homicide, making that one of the leading causes of workplace death.

Most vulnerable, according to OSHA, are workers who exchange cash with the public, or who work alone or in small groups during late-night or early morning hours in high-crime areas or in community settings where they have extensive contact with the public, such as any foodservice operation.

According to preliminary statistics collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2008—the most recent year available—160 workers in food service or drinking places died as a result of homicide, assault or violent acts that year. Those incidents account for slightly more than 12 percent of the 1,311 fatalities from workplace homicide, assault or violent acts recorded among all industries, according to preliminary numbers for 2008.

Still, the number of employee deaths from assault, violence or homicide in restaurants or bars has been declining over the past three years. In 2007, there were 189 fatalities from homicide, assault or violence in foodservice or drinking places, according to the BLS, down from 199 in 2006.

Because the BLS statistics are compiled from workers’ compensation claims, however, they may not reflect the full picture, experts say. The statistics also don’t count the number of patrons who are murdered or are victims of violent crime in restaurants, a crime statistic that isn’t tracked nationally.

Chris McGoey, president of McGoey Security Consulting in Los Angeles, believes the data haven’t caught up with reality yet. Anecdotally, he said, it’s a “mixed bag.”

160 workers in food service or drinking places died as a result of homicide, assault or violent acts in 2008, according to preliminary numbers.


“I get reports every day about murders, stabbings or gang fights,” he said. “A lot of the time there is no valid reason. People are stressed and angry.”

Several national restaurant chains contacted for this article declined to comment on their crime rates or security policies, saying they didn’t want the bad guys to know their secrets.

In general, violent crime rates in the United States have dipped about 15 percent during the current decade compared with the relatively violent 1990s, said Jim Forlenza, executive director of the National Food Service Security Council in Olney, Md.

While some of the association’s members feared a return of higher crime rates after the economic downturn in 2008, Forlenza said, the industry did not, in fact, see a measurable increase in violent crime during 2009.

Several security directors said that’s because their efforts are working.

Increasingly, the fear of liability is another motivation for restaurant chains to develop and execute a comprehensive security plan, some said.

In the Denny’s case, the restaurant should have had a uniformed “authority figure” or security guard in place, monitoring the crowd, said Ron Perey, a Seattle attorney representing the two victims in the Denny’s shooting.

The company also could have closed the restaurant during certain hours to avoid the unruly bar rush crowd, he argued. According to documents entered as evidence in the case, the company’s security director and employees at the restaurant had urged officials at the Spartanburg, S.C.-based headquarters to take steps to make the property safer at night.

“In most situations, when you dine at Denny’s, you don’t dine with danger,” Perey said. “Most customers just want a meal after a night of partying, not a fight, a shooting, a robbery, a rape or drugs.”

But in some neighborhoods the 24-hour business model “creates an invitation to violence,” he said, “particularly in the late-evening hours between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.”

The case is scheduled for trial next year, though Tolenoa’s attorneys have proposed a $25 million settlement.

The question remains, however, exactly what a restaurant operator must do to show enough has been done to protect staff and guests.

McGoey, who previously headed security for 7-Eleven convenience stores, said big restaurant chains with a 24/7 business model are not likely to shut down at night and lose sales.

“They say: ‘No, we’re not going to do that. That’s why we have insurance,’” McGoey said.

Security officials across the country say any plaintiff’s attorney will argue that a security guard would have prevented the violent crime, but there is little evidence to support that argument.

“It mostly has to do with what type of environment you’re in,” said Jon Groussman, president and chief operating officer of Exton, Pa.-based CAP Index Inc., a firm that offers site-specific risk assessment. “It’s about understanding the environment and adjusting accordingly.”

Some technological advances have helped deter crime. The Wendy’s quick-service chain in 2005 was one of the first large restaurant companies to test the use of “smart safes,” which now are used more throughout the quick-service sector.

The safes allow employees to input cash. Bills are checked for potential counterfeiting and the safe electronically notifies the bank of a deposit. From the restaurant’s standpoint, the money is considered in the bank.

The safe can be opened only by an armored-car company, which removes the cash canister and delivers it to the bank. The armored-car company is responsible for the contents during the transfer. Restaurant employees no longer have to make daily runs to the bank, a practice that takes managers’ time and puts them at risk.

The smart safes have been rolled out to all corporate Wendy’s units, as well as some franchise locations, and officials said they plan to roll the safes throughout the sibling Arby’s chain as well.

Jack in the Box restaurants also use the smart-safe system, said Gene James, director of asset protection for Jack in the Box Inc., based in San Diego.

James said the 1,300 corporate units under his purview have seen robbery, internal theft and acts of violence trending down steadily over the past five years. He attributed the decline to the company’s culture of accountability.

“You can’t control the external environment. It is what it is,” James said. “But you can control internal processes and procedures—and compliance.”

At Jack in the Box restaurants, that means employees are trained and retrained, and their compliance is tracked. Training includes basic practices, such as never opening the back door at night and always cooperating with robbers.

But Jack in the Box also taps into other technological innovations. In about 150 units in high-crime areas, the company also uses an interactive security system in which video cameras are placed throughout the property with audio connection. The cameras are monitored remotely.

If the monitors see a crime occurring, or employees sound a silent alarm, they can immediately dial into the restaurant’s audio system and “voice down,” addressing the patron specifically—“You there in the Oakland Raiders jacket!”

The suspect could be told police have been called or that the crime is being recorded.

“It stops situations from occurring on a daily basis,” James said.

The system could have benefited Nigel Haskett, an employee of a McDonald’s unit in Little Rock, Ark., who in 2008 intervened when he saw a man strike a female customer in the face.

Haskett ejected the man, but after a tussle outside, the customer retrieved a gun from his car and fired. Haskett survived and was hailed locally as a hero, but his attorney said medical bills topped $200,000.

Initially, the chain’s insurance company denied Haskett’s workers’ compensation claim, saying the employee had ignored safety training that urged workers not to be heroes. But later Haskett reached a settlement. Attorneys said the terms were confidential, but the dispute was resolved.

Roy Reichold, vice president of Welsch, Flatness & Lutz, a risk management insurance broker in St. Louis, wasn’t surprised by the denied claim.

“Morally, he did the right thing,” Reichold said. “He was a hero. But did he break company policy? Yes.”

Reichold is among those who fear the high unemployment rate still will result in higher crime rates.

“It’s going to get crazy,” he said. The first step any restaurant can make to deter crime, he said, is to hire good people.

“Most [robbers] are someone familiar with the facility, like an ex-employee or a friend of an employee,” he said.

In Kansas City, Mo., in November police reportedly arrested the suspect in a string of armed robberies, one of which occurred in a Five Guys restaurant. One suspect was a former Five Guys employee, and though the robbers wore ski masks when they collected the wallets of customers, a manager recognized the distinctive gait of one of the gunmen as his former co-worker.

One benefit of the difficult economy is that restaurants can be more selective in their recruiting, said Libby Libhart, former national director of security and safety for McDonald’s who now heads consulting firm Franchise 911, based in Dover, Fla.

“You want folks who will take to training,” he said.

Libhart contends that the No. 1 reason why employees don’t follow security policies is that the company has no security policy.

“Good crime prevention is very comprehensive, and a lot of people don’t know that,” he said. “It’s not just about putting cameras in and locking the back door.”

Still, no matter how comprehensive a security plan, others point to incidents like the recent shooting at a Parkland, Wash., coffee shop, where four police officers were brutally shot down while having breakfast.

The incident was made all the more painful by the fact that the 22-unit coffeehouse chain Forza Coffee Co., based in Gig Harbor, Wash., was founded by a retired policeman.

“That was so tragic,” said Perey, the attorney in the Denny’s lawsuit. “Even we plaintiff attorneys don’t think that could have been prevented.”— [email protected]


Evaluate the security needs of each property, considering the neighborhood and operating conditions. Review security plans routinely to assess effectiveness and alter, if necessary.

Make sure parking lots are well lit.

Use a safe with a time-delayed lock that opens only a certain time after a code is punched in. Most robbers will not want to hang around for 10 to 30 minutes for the door to open. Put a sign on the door indicating that the safe has a time-delayed lock.

Move the safe from a back room to the front counter. Many thieves will not want to pull out a gun in public.

Institute a strong employee-screening program and conduct background checks.

Develop strict policies controlling use of the back door and keep it locked. Some companies recommend never opening the back door after dark and removing trash through other exits.

Train employees not to be heroes in the event of a robbery. They should remain calm and explain the routine noises equipment might make so robbers are not startled. They should also be trained to look at the shoes of masked robbers, which are less likely to be changed after a getaway.

Consider closing the restaurant during certain late night hours and offering drive-thru service only.

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