Mary Hutchison's paralyzing fear was that she'd die working late at Burger King.
The 45-year-old former Burger King manager and mother of three had been pistol-whipped with such force in a late-night robbery that she lost hearing in her right ear.
Nine months later, she pushed aside that memory — for which she was seeing a therapist — to fill in at a Burger King in nearby Lindenhurst, Ill. On Nov. 27, 2006, while working alone in the 4 a.m. darkness, her worst fears barged in the back door. A former employee stabbed her 21 times before strangling her with her bow tie, police reports say.
Both robberies occurred between midnight and 6 a.m. Those are common convenience-store hours, but until recently, most fast-food stands were closed after midnight.
In the past several years — responding to customer demand and the lure of extra sales — McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and others have stretched their days with later closings and earlier openings. The extra nighttime hours, however, bring extra risk for crime. Questions now are being raised about whether the industry, with 4 million U.S. workers, is adequately beefing up protection for those hours.
"Some fast-food chains have come up with special food menus after midnight," says James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. "But what they really need are special late-night security menus."
Such thinking doesn't come naturally to an industry that spends more than $2 billion a year promoting itself as fun and friendly. But there are signs that just by coming to work, fast food's late-hour workers might be putting their lives at risk.
Some 109 worker homicides at limited-service (fast-food) restaurants were reported from 2003 through 2006, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says. The number rose from 24 in 2005 to 28 in 2006, a 17% increase.
Compared with jobs with a greater reputation for late-night risks, the total is more than the 27 homicides of taxi drivers in 2006. It's just seven less than the 35 convenience-store workers killed in 2006, a 17% drop from 2005.
More common are assaults: 2,750 workers at food-service and drinking places suffered non-fatal assaults from 2003 through 2006, says the bureau (it does not break out assaults for fast-food places).
While statistics for 2007 are not out, "Violent crime will only increase in fast food," says Rosemary Erickson, president of Athena Research, a security researcher.
Of course, criminals are responsible for these tragic events, but late hours add vulnerability. Of all robberies anywhere in the USA in 2005, nearly 26% took place between midnight and 6 a.m., according to an analysis for USA TODAY by Fox of federal National Incident-Based Reporting System data.
"Increasing store hours increases the hours that the bad guys can rob you," says Bill Wise, a consultant at Security Wise Group and former safety and security manager for Wendy's on the East Coast. "Darkness to dawn is the highest time of exposure to armed robbery."
The convenience-store industry knows this well. A crime wave followed the 1970s expansion by 7-Eleven and others into 24-hour operations.
Following lawsuits, pressure from lawmakers and negative publicity, most added security measures that many fast-food chains, still new to round-the-clock hours, have not fully addressed.
"These places are like low-hanging fruit for the bad guys," says John R. Roberts of J.R. Roberts Security Strategies, a retail consultant.
Chris McGoey, a consultant and former loss-prevention manager at 7-Eleven, says that despite some upgrades, "The fast-food industry is trailing convenience stores."
No industry standards
Some fast-food outlets have beefed up security with measures such as drive-through-only service after midnight, bulletproof drive-through windows, high-tech cameras or safes that can't be opened by workers or robbers.
But there are no standards for the industry, which had U.S. sales topping $173 billion in 2006, according to restaurant researcher Technomic.
"There are more security issues when you stay open late," says Edward Tallon, spokesman for National Food Service Security Council, an industry group.
But, "We do not have standards at this time. There are no written best practices." He says members do meet annually and discuss best practices.
The longer fast-food hours have been driven by consumer demand. About one in eight U.S. workers leaves home before 6 a.m., the Census Bureau says. A 24/7 society wants what it wants when it wants it — even fresh burgers at 3 a.m.
Burger King in May began requiring U.S. franchisees to stay open until midnight at most locations.
About 30% of U.S. McDonald's are open 24 hours, vs. less than 10% five years ago. About 95% of McDonald's have extended weekend or night hours — often until 2 a.m. — and 88% open by 5 a.m.
Wendy's began a national late-night program in 2001; Taco Bell followed in 2003. KFC is extending hours in its top 20 markets.
Many chains also now open for breakfast by 5 a.m., which means someone is there by 4 a.m. to fire up the grills. All Hardee's company-owned stores open at 5 a.m.
Demand has made longer hours lucrative, and it's a cheaper way to grow sales than new stores.
"If you can get an extra hour or two, it's pure profit," says Chris Muller, director of the University of Central Florida's Center for Multi-Unit Restaurant Management.
Burger King CEO John Chidsey told analysts in May that five extra hours could add 1% to same-store sales growth, a comparison of stores open at least a year.
But the wee hours also add risk.
"Fast-food restaurants are vulnerable after midnight, and the longer they stay open, the more vulnerable they are," Fox says.
Fast-food giants are reluctant to discuss their security measures, saying it could compromise safety.
Of CEOs at five major chains contacted, only Andrew Puzder of CKE Restaurants, owner of Hardee's and Carl's Jr., would comment.
"The risks to employees and customers probably are greater at night than during the daytime," he says. "If you've got one open late at night, you need to take steps."
Most 24-hour Hardee's and Carl's take only drive-through orders after midnight. Late-night stores also have digital video security cameras.
McDonald's USA Chief Operating Officer Jan Fields says that chain "does not have disproportionate safety problems at late night." But a "majority" of units open past midnight offer only drive-through service, she says, and most McDonald's have cameras. Employee security is "top of mind for us," Fields says.
Other fast-food security moves:
•Burger King. Has day and night security, but won't comment "to avoid compromising these measures," spokesman Keva Silversmith says.
•Wendy's. Has "extensive" security procedures it won't discuss "because we do not want to compromise them," spokesman Bob Bertini says.
•Taco Bell. Has "stepped up security training, including updating crime-prevention videos," spokesman Rob Poetsch says. Every store gets a quarterly security review, he says.
•KFC. Has "heightened" security at units open late, spokeswoman Laurie Schalow says. Managers audit restaurants "several times a day" to be sure security procedures are followed.
Call for cameras
Ten security consultants interviewed for this story say, however, that the late-hour trend should prompt specific measures, from updated security audits to time-delay safes to state-of-the-art digital cameras to deter — or at least help nab — the crooks.
At the time of a double slaying in January at a Burger King in Momence, Ill., the restaurant had no cameras. It does now.
"Everybody says, if we'd had that security camera back then, nothing would have happened," says Marshal Bender, assistant manager and 16-year worker. "But who knows?"
Bender says co-workers now also feel safer because police escort employees who open or close.
Angela Jones, wife of Paul Jones — the Momence manager who was killed — wonders if Burger King executives look out for workers the way they do for themselves.
"I'd be very interested to go into corporate headquarters and see the security there," she says.
What will prompt the industry to move faster on security?
"The industry responds to jury verdicts," says Michael Witkowski, associate professor of criminal justice at University of Detroit Mercy. "Whenever they are forced to pay significant court awards, that makes them rethink their policies. Unfortunately, that's what it takes."
Ken Hutchison, husband of slaying victim Mary Hutchison, doesn't know if his family's lawsuit will bring such an award — but he says he could use the money.
After his wife's death at the Lindenhurst Burger King, he left his engineering supervisor job to be home at 3 p.m. when daughter Rebeccah, 13, gets off the school bus.
He sued Burger King and a franchisee for an unspecified amount, charging poor security and a lack of cameras, despite assurances to Mary Hutchison that they were planned.
The lawsuit also faults the chain's background checks on employees. The lawsuit charges that James Ealy, the ex-employee accused in the death, was previously sentenced to life in prison for a murder in 1982. But the conviction was struck down in 1986, after an appellate court found that police held Ealy too long without probable cause.
Burger King doesn't comment on pending litigation, Silversmith says.
Dedication, with sadness
In the living room of the family home in a Trevor neighborhood of manufactured housing, Hutchison invites a reporter to watch a DVD. Mary Hutchison's father, Richard Dean, joins them.
"We made this for Mary," Hutchison says. Family photos fill the screen as her favorite Elvis Presley song, Love Me Tender, plays.
There's a black-and-white photo from her grammar school days.
Dean quietly cries. "Imagine losing a daughter like this," he says.
Video of the Hutchisons' wedding comes on — a big bride's smile on Mary's face — causing Ken to leave the room in tears. He collects himself and returns, asking:
"How many fast-food workers will be robbed, beaten or murdered before someone finally decides to make people safer?"
Contributing: Thomas Ankner in McLean, Va.