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Restaurant industry fights wave of violence

A 25-year-old Captain D's manager and his 16-year-old helper are shot to death in an apparent robbery while preparing the restaurant for Sunday lunch.

In Mount Pleasant, S.C., the stabbed body of a restaurant owner is found in the kitchen of her Chinese restaurant, which also was robbed.

A Wisconsin teenager is charged with using a baseball bat to fatally beat the owner of a diner before grabbing her money bag and spending the loot on bowling, video games and fast food.

These 1997 slayings are part of a growing problem for the restaurant industry, which deals in cash, opens early and closes late, and depends on transient workers for much of its staff.

About 15 people are killed at work each week in the United States, and one typically is a restaurant employee, according to the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

"We're outraged. We know this is a violent world we live in," said Mimi Bliss, spokeswoman for the 1,400-restaurant Shoney's chain, which lost four employees to homicide within four weeks this year.

Restaurants still rate far below taxi services, liquor stores and gas stations in homicides, but remain in the top 10 most vulnerable places to work.

The safety and health institute lists robbery as the primary motive, but other homicides are caused by disgruntled workers, clients or domestic violence that spills into the workplace.

"It's a scary world out there," said Francis D'Addario, security manager for Hardee's restaurants, which lost a manager in a homicide last May in Atlanta.

"We live in a cocaine-saturated environment with 200-million firearms accessible. And that leads to violence," D'Addario said. "But we shouldn't close down the store."

The industry is fighting back. Restaurants and other food-related businesses spent $6.5-billion on security last year, said Bill Zalud, editorial director of Security Magazine.

"Chain fast-food restaurants have done a fairly diligent job of trying to improve security and protection for their employees and customers," Zalud said.

Where there once were peepholes and door locks, employees now have wireless panic buttons and video monitoring.

"The larger chains have the money to invest," Zalud said. "But the restaurant business is still dominated by mom-and-pop operations that typically don't spend hefty amounts on security."

Full-service, sit-down restaurants lag in security spending too, he said, but have implemented common-sense precautions such as improved lighting and back door security.

Still, restaurants remain an easy mark because they are accessible, plentiful and open at night, and typically have cash on hand.

"Opening and closing hours are the most vulnerable times for robberies," said Tom Briggs, spokesman for the National Council of Chain Restaurants. "When it happens, there's a very high probability that the offender is an ex-employee . . . or perhaps even a friend of an employee. They know the equipment, layout and procedures."

The industry is looking closely at its employee screening procedures but is plagued by high turnover. Newspapers' classified ads typically are filled with pleas for cooks, servers and dishwashers.

"It's basically a minimum-wage job and not seen as a career track," Briggs said.

Franchise agreements also limit the ability of chains to install systemwide security measures. Chains have complete authority over company-owned restaurants but cannot necessarily mandate added expenses to franchise owners.

"Franchisees are independent business partners," said D'Addario of Hardee's, which owns 25 percent of its 4,000 restaurants. "We share our best practices with each other, but per-store investment in security varies . . . from tens of dollars to $10,000 or more."

Still, most franchisees joined Hardee's comprehensive crime-prevention program, launched in 1992. The result has been a 79 percent decrease in robbery violence.

"We're not sure which parts of our security package are getting us the results, but we are having luck reducing the frequency," D'Addario said. "No matter what we do, though, we might not be able to prevent violence at any given location on any night."

George Van Luven knows that well. His daughter Marsha Klopp was night manager of a Taco Bell in Clarksville, Tenn., on Jan. 30, 1994, when she and three co-workers were killed by a soldier who worked part time at the restaurant and needed money to pay a car repair bill.

"Marsha had worked at Krystal's and several fast-food places and really enjoyed it. She liked people and was a happy person," Van Luven said.

The oldest of eight children, Klopp, 22, was saving money to pay for nursing school and wanted to work in an emergency room someday. She had three children.

"Who expected to be working at a Taco Bell joint and get killed?" said Van Luven, who feels sick even driving by a fast-food restaurant. "Her death practically destroyed us. . . . Life goes on, one day at a time, but it's never the same again."