If you've ever been to a fast food restaurant late at night for a life-saving dose of starch and cheese, you may have felt a certain air of tension in the dining room.
And if you were really in the wrong place at the wrong time, that tension may even have spilled over into a full-on confrontation—possibly involving a raccoon, a lost time-traveller, molten-cheese burns, fire extinguisher attacks, or windows being smashed due to mischievous customers.
One particularly rowdy McDonald's location in Glasgow, Scotland recently resorted to playing classical music in an attempt to "encourage calm behaviour" among late-night diners, after police were called to the restaurant for 200 incidents in the past 14 months. This subtle method of crowd control has subsequently been adopted by other locations in England and Australia, though a Burger King also used it last year, to great effect, in order to deal with loitering.
One need only enter the search terms "fast food fight" in YouTube to find a veritable geyser of fast-food-fueled violence, with videos that range from the absurd to the downright disturbing. But with fast food violence being such fodder for viral videos and local news coverage, it could be skewing our collective view of the perils of eating fast food.
So, why do fast food establishments seem to be such hubs of violence?
The answer, according to Chris McGoey, needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. McGoey, a.k.a. the Crime Doctor, is a security expert witness and consultant who's worked with several fast food franchises to minimize the occurrence of violence.
"Some restaurants are flat out dangerous—most are not," he explains. "The ones that do have problems can often be isolated to a time of day; then you can manage it."
In other words, what makes one franchise more dangerous than another comes down to a confluence of factors that range from logistical to economic.
"When I do an evaluation, I have to evaluate the premises," McGoey says. "With any company that's consulting me or doesn't know how to fix it, I have to go to the location and [make] observations, interviewing staff, reading police reports, and the history of what's happened there before, he says, is a great indicator of what will happen in the future."
David D. Van Fleet is a professor at Arizona State University's Morrison School of Agribusiness and the author of The Violence Volcano: Reducing the Threat of Workplace Violence , a book intended to help businesses, regulators, and law enforcement understand the risk factors for workplace violence.
Van Fleet agrees that the issue of violent crime at fast food locations is a complex one, due in part to a lack of academic research on the topic. "There's a whole flock of reasons that add up in fast food restaurants," he says. "But there isn't enough research to suggest what the major ones are."
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 229 workers at "limited-service" restaurants were killed on the job between 1997 and 2010, versus 173 workers—32 percent fewer—at "full-service" sit-down restaurants. This statistical glimpse into these areas of food service shows a higher incidence of deaths for fast food employees, but this is still not enough data to say outright that fast food restaurants are especially dangerous places.
Still, Van Fleet was willing to enumerate a few key factors that could theoretically make fast food restaurants more vulnerable to violent crime. "There tends to be a lot of cash, [and] the workers tend to be young and untrained when it comes to dealing with emergency situations," he says. "They also open early and close late, and they tend to be located in easy-to-access locations, so bad people can get there easily and leave easily."
Practically speaking, Chris McGoey has seen a lot of the same factors at play in his consulting work, and some of the biggest problems are structural and logistical—namely, seating, location, and the presence of drug users and drunk people.
"Most corporate fast food models have seating inside," says McGoey. "Any time you have [open] seating, [a restaurant] is open late, and it's well-lit, it becomes a gathering place to hang out and loiter. Certain groups may tend to hang out there for extended periods of time and if they become hangouts for certain groups, you're going to have problems, because they could come up against other groups that they have problems with."
Ironically, the very characteristics that make fast food restaurants convenient also make them more easily accessible to criminals, as it is with convenience stores and gas stations. "Most of the high crime restaurants are in urban areas with a fairly dense population, operate 24 hours a day, and are on usually major thoroughfares, or adjacent to highway and freeway exits. It makes them highly desirable for highway robberies," he says, since assailants can be in a completely different area within minutes.
"When I go to a property that's completely out of control, I find that the employees and managers are frightened."
Add drugs and alcohol to that mix, and you can have a very high-risk scenario. "Some of the worst restaurants I worked became the place for drug sales because it's automatic traffic. It's a perfect place for someone who sells drugs to hang out and make it a meet-up place."
As you may have experienced yourself, alcohol increases one's likelihood of seeking something fast and cheap when it comes time to order food, and, as McGoey asserts, "You can just run in and grab something to stuff in your face and offset the effects of alcohol and go."
This might explain why most of the fast food brawls you see on the Internet seem to involve an army of drunk people, seeking a late-night bite after the bars shut down. "At 2 AM, fast food restaurants might be loaded with people who are under the influence or intoxicated and that's not always a good thing when people are coming together. It aggravates the situation."
The time of day at which "bad guys" peruse seemed to be a recurring theme in McGoey's consulting work. "Most people are up and about during the day. Once you get past 10 PM or into the early hours, the traffic falls off drastically. There's just a lot of bad guys still up, maybe unemployed or whatever, out and about. That's the time that they're out."
McGoey recommends that certain fast food restaurant locations close at midnight to avoid an onslaught of drunk customers after last call. But he emphasizes that other locations had rushes at lunch or after a football game, and that each restaurant really has to be evaluated individually.
"I could go on and on," McGoey asserts. "There's a list of a hundred things on the premises that could contribute to more dangers than in other places."
Ultimately, it's the staff of fast food restaurants who are left to contend with sometimes brutal and unpredictable violence, and it takes a lot more to fix economic issues than just flicking on some Bach tunes.
"Fast food restaurants tend to have less security than a lot of other businesses," says David Van Fleet. "Also, there is high employee turnover in these restaurants, so the value of training isn't obvious." This, he says, leaves them particularly vulnerable and under-prepared for "eruptions" of violence, as he calls them.
McGoey agrees. "When I go to a property that's completely out of control, I find that the employees and managers are frightened. They want to stay inside, they don't want to go outside or say anything to really resolve the issues. Service workers, for what they're getting paid, aren't going to want to do that."
And hiring a security guard doesn't get the the root of the problem either; franchise owners wanting to deal with a crime problem on their property have to think outside the bun.
"The service workers are usually not very good at enforcing rules, he says. "They're not security people or highly trained in crowd management and they're inside a box. Back in the prep area, they literally cannot see outside. There has to be some arrangement to have someone monitoring behavior outside the building and monitoring the parking lot and enforcing rules. But if they hire a security guard without any clear rules, it's not effective."
Both Van Fleet and McGoey agree that the very convenience that makes fast food ubiquitous also puts certain locations at risk for violent crime. Trying to attract as many customers as possible with cheap food at all hours of the day might be good for the bottom line of a fast food franchise, but it can also create a perfect storm for crime.