The robbers typically strike late at night or early in the morning, when the restaurants they target have just one or two employees working. The thieves move quickly, shooting through doors and jumping over counters and sometimes taking just seconds to point a gun, grab money and flee.
Between Dec. 1 and Feb. 3, the number of robberies at restaurants, diners and coffee shops has jumped from 5 to 22 compared with the same time period a year ago, a spike that worries restaurant owners and employees and flummoxes police.
Investigators have uncovered connections between some of the robberies, and they’ve already made arrests in several. On Wednesday, they arrested 21-year-old Jonathan Shaird, who investigators say robbed a Taco Bell on Freedom Drive around 10 a.m. Saturday. A few minutes later, police say, he robbed a Wendy’s restaurant a few blocks away. Officers say other suspects may have been involved.
Police say they’re not sure what’s causing the spike in restaurant robberies, or whether the incidents are the work of organized groups of criminals.
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“We don’t know why this is happening. We are as taken aback as anybody,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Capt. Michelle Hummel, who oversees the department’s robbery unit. “We’re racking our brains trying to figure out what the connection is and if there’s a connection.”
One high-profile robbery happened at the Pizza Hut on Kings Drive near Carolinas Medical Center around 8 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday. The robbers struck as business was tapering off following a big rush before the game.
One employee, who didn’t want his name used because his company has a policy against speaking to the media, said the two thieves were in the store for less than 30 seconds.
“It was about 7:55 and I was cutting my last pizza for the night,” the employee said. “The door opened, which is no big deal. I look up and I see someone jumping over the counter.”
The robbers were wearing black ski masks and sunglasses. One pointed a pistol at two employees and motioned for everyone to get on the floor, then began searching the store.
“They seemed like they had a plan,” the employee said. It apparently was ruined when one frightened employee ran out of the store. The thieves fled after her and had not been apprehended by late Wednesday.
Afterward, the employee who talked to the Observer said some of his co-workers consoled each other and cried. Others have talked about quitting.
Among the robbery cases:
• Police believe that robberies in December and January at Cook-Out restaurants in Mecklenburg, Lincoln, Rowan and Union counties and a Kannapolis McDonald’s are connected and likely committed by a single suspect. Cook-Outs routinely stay open until 4 a.m., and many McDonald’s are open around the clock. The robberies typically took place around 7 a.m., and the suspect’s description has been similar in each case.
In one of the Cook-Out robberies, on Sardis Road in northeast Charlotte, a masked suspect shot through a glass door at the back of the restaurant and demanded that the manager open the safe and turn over money. The suspect fled in a red late-model Toyota Camry.
• Police say Shaird is not the only one responsible for the Saturday robberies on Freedom Drive, although they haven’t publicly identified other suspects or announced other arrests.
• Police have not publicly identified suspects in the majority of the restaurant robberies over the past two months, including four other robberies at Wendy’s restaurants across the city between Dec. 7 and Feb. 1.
• Thieves also targeted the Chicken Box restaurant on Sugar Creek Road (Jan. 5), Panera Bread on J.W. Clay Boulevard (Dec. 12) and a Subway restaurant on North Graham Street in uptown Charlotte (Jan. 7). No arrests have been announced in those robberies.
Hummel said store owners can make themselves less vulnerable by using money drops and delayed-open safes, which require a user to wait for a certain amount of time to elapse after entering the combination.
She also said good video surveillance helps officers identify suspects.
“If we don’t have that, we’re relying on a victim with a gun in their face to give us a good description of the person,” she said. “And that’s not always reliable.”