Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Terrorism barges into restaurants

Restaurants are expected to provide a respite from the world’s weighty troubles. But lately they’ve been tied to the scourge that tops the list, terrorism.

Authorities in Wisconsin are trying to find the person who called an Appleton Taco Bell Saturday and said he’d left a bomb there. No explosives were found.

The individual is believed to be the same one who asserted the next morning that he’d stashed a bomb at a regional airport in the area, prompting a full-scale evacuation and search. Some news stories say a restaurant employee overheard people talking about the possible threat during breakfast. Others say the restaurant where that person worked had been called by the suspect. In any case, the name of the restaurant was not divulged in press reports. No bombs were found.

Meanwhile, officials are trying to close the book on a Kansas City incident in which nearly 50 customers of a nearby Mexican restaurant were poisoned last summer. A 19-year-old former staffer of Mi Ranchita reportedly pleaded guilty yesterday to slipping pesticides in the restaurant’s salsa at the request of her boyfriend. He apparently felt he’d been dissed by management during his time of employment at a sister restaurant. Killing or sickening patrons would be an apt revenge, he figured. The boyfriend is awaiting trial.

Disgruntled employees were also arrested after customers found pills in the sandwiches they purchased through the drive-thru of a Burger King in Jacksonville, Fla. The pills contained hydrocodone, a painkiller. Press reports say one patron discovered the pills, which had been slipped into his fish sandwich, while he was adding salt and pepper. Another patron reportedly ingested the pills and suffered seizures.

The coverage says the two employees who were subsequently arrested had conflicted with management over their performance and behavior.

In a business as large and widespread as the restaurant industry, you’re always going to have those troubled individuals the fringes who somehow come to equate kicking other people with righting what’s been done to them. Add the factor of an economy that’s pushing more people to the edge, and a step-up in that twisted behavior shouldn’t be a surprise.

But I can’t help but remember one of the most disturbing industry developments I had to cover, the shooting of 43 people at a Luby’s in Killeen, Texas. Twenty-three would die. A dishwasher was found days later, cowering in the warewashing machine.
The shooter’s motives were never known; he crashed his truck through the restaurant’s windows, shot as many people as he could, then killed himself, taking any rationale with him.

Afterwards, in trying to supply the why to my story and a column I wrote, I spoke with Frank Mankiewicz, the press secretary for Robert F. Kennedy at the time of his death and a longtime figure in Democratic politics and messaging. Mankiewicz theorized that restaurants had replaced town squares as the focal points of communities, particularly small ones.

As such, he suggested, they’ve become the obvious stage for the disgruntled and resentful sorts who want to exact revenge while getting the public’s attention. It's the place to make a big bang and feel important, or at least powerful.

Sadly, nearly 21 years later, Mankiewicz’s words still seem on target.

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