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After 'pizzagate' shooting, an industry trained in hospitality thinks about security

I was sitting in a restaurant in Paris last November when I learned that, one arrondisement over, terrorists were attacking restaurants. As my fellow diners and I quickly paid our checks and scurried down the street to safety, everyone eyed the r...

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People pass by Comet Ping Pong the day after the attack. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain

I was sitting in a restaurant in Paris last November when I learned that, one arrondisement over, terrorists were attacking restaurants. As my fellow diners and I quickly paid our checks and scurried down the street to safety, everyone eyed the restaurant warily.

It was a small place on a corner, with huge glass windows and an open kitchen. Nowhere to hide. Among the 130 who died in multiple attacks that night were those who were having a casual dinner or drinks at the restaurants Le Carillon, Le Petit Cambodge, Café Bonne Bière, La Casa Nostra and La Belle Équipe.

Six months later, an Orlando gay bar, Pulse, was attacked by a gunman who killed 49 people. And on Sunday in Washington, D.C., a gunman strode into the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant to "self-investigate" a false conspiracy theory that a Clinton pedophilia ring was hosted there. Though the intent behind this attack was different - and, thankfully, no one was hurt - it reinforced the industry's vulnerability.

"The reality of our business is that we welcome the public - the entire public," said Ruth Gresser, owner of D.C.'s Pizzeria Paradiso. But one day, someone could show up with a gun. While her staff has procedures in place if a customer becomes belligerent - switch servers, don't touch the patron, call the police if the situation turns violent - "The idea that there's now a political level that is entering the realm is new," she said. "We're not used to that level of aggression and violence. There is the question that a lot of us are starting to wonder: How prepared do we need to be in dealing with this kind of situation?"

To be honest? Pretty prepared, says Andy Hughes, a law enforcement consultant and former assistant director of homeland security for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

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"A restaurant is a wonderful target because it's full of people, and they're all sitting down. There's not a lot of locked doors that you can run behind," Hughes said. A former tactical operations chief and county sheriff, he was a responder in a 2012 shooting that killed three people at an Alabama nightclub, instigated by a patron who had been kicked out after an altercation.

The incidents in Paris, Orlando and Washington are just the most notable recent examples in a history of violence at restaurants and bars. In 1984, a gunman entered a McDonald's in San Ysidro, California, and shot 40 people, killing 21, before he was killed by a SWAT team sniper. That was the deadliest mass shooting in the nation until 1991, when it was superceded by another shooting in a restaurant: In Kileen, Texas, a gunman drove his car into the window of a Luby's restaurant and shot 50 people, killing 23, before he shot himself.

Edgar Maddison Welch, the alleged Comet gunman, apparently had a different motivation: He believed the false "pizzagate" conspiracy theory that had been growing online, concocted in the wake of the leak of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's emails, according to police. Businesses surrounding the restaurant were targeted, too. The thought that someone could show up with a gun "definitely crossed my mind," said Matt Carr, owner of the Little Red Fox, a bakery and market next door. He had contacted the FBI about the threats, including callers who threatened him with a firing squad, prior to the Sunday incident.

"We're a mom-and-pop place," said Carr, who operates the market with his wife. "This is not what I signed up for. I make coffee and pastries. Dealing with this kind of online threat is not in our wheelhouse."

Though Welch allegedly pointed his gun at a Comet employee, he fired at the restaurant's inside doors, not its guests. He told police he was planning to rescue child sex slaves that the internet rumors alleged were being kept in the restaurant's back rooms. But in the first confusing seconds after someone walks into a restaurant with a gun, patrons have no way of knowing whether he's there to destroy property and "self-investigate," or to harm people at random. So the advice is the same that experts have repeated after every mass shooting: Run, hide, fight.

The problem, though, is that restaurants are often big rooms with open kitchens and few hiding places. Many only have two exits - one in the front, and one in the back.

"You have a large number of people coming in and out that may or may not be familiar with the restaurant," said Mike Clumpner, president and chief executive of Threat Suppression, a public safety consulting firm. "People aren't as aware of their exits as they should be."

Besides, they "go to restaurants to relax, so people let their guard down," Clumpner said. And they might be drinking, which could delay their reaction.

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In an interview on "60 Minutes" last November, then-D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier encouraged people to fight back if they ever find themselves in an active shooter situation that they cannot escape.

"I always say if you can get out, getting out's your first option, your best option," Lanier said. "If you're in a position to try and take the gunman down, to take the gunman out, it's the best option for saving lives before police can get there."

If you have to fight in a restaurant, Clumpner says to remember you're already armed: "You have a fork and a knife with you. You need to fight, and you need to understand that you are in the fight of your life." Patrons can also throw chairs and plates to distract the gunman.

But the chance that diners will find themselves in such a scenario is still quite small. And the fear of a restaurant gunman should not interfere with your enjoyment of life, Hughes says. That's why the hashtag #JeSuisEnTerrasse - "I am on a terrace" - trended after the Paris attacks.

"We don't need to be scared to go to a restaurant to eat with our family," he said. "But we do need to be prepared."

Restaurant and bar owners are realizing that they do, too. Government officials met with some owners in January, describing the dangers of being a "soft target" and reiterating the importance of security at the door. Gresser has proposed a training course for dealing with restaurant violence to the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. A spokesperson there said that nothing specific had been planned yet.

Derek Brown, owner of the Columbia Room, Eat the Rich and other D.C. bars and restaurants, posts staff members at doors to check bags, and to keep an eye on the street. He and his staff also have plans for how to get guests out, and where to meet, in the event of a natural disaster or violent incident - something Gresser said is now moving to the top of her priority list, too. "I think every restaurant should be prepared," Brown said. "I hate to say it. I wish it wasn't the case."

As for Comet, owner James Alefantis has employed private security. A spokesman for the restaurant, who asked not to be named to avoid online harassment, said law enforcement has advised Comet not to give specific details, adding that Comet has "taken every step possible to make sure that the restaurant continues to be a safe place." Police have increased their presence on the block, and Carr said the alarm company used by several people on that block plans to host a security training for those businesses.

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Clumpner pointed to the briefings flight attendants give travelers about how to evacuate the aircraft in an emergency landing. "They're there for safety first, hospitality second, and I think restaurateurs should realize that, too," he said.

But restaurateurs are trained to put hospitality first, and that's what makes these incidents so difficult for the industry to accept.

"I think that hospitality industry is ... fundamentally set up to serve and to satisfy people's expectations and desires. We want to say yes," Gresser said. "So the idea that that's potentially being disturbed has been very uncomfortable."

 

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