At night, burger joint has rough rep

'It's very scary,' one neighbor says

Staff WriterOctober 1, 2007 

— Every Saturday at 2 a.m., a humble hamburger joint in East Raleigh turns into a playground for tricked-out cars, kids in baggy shorts and -- on bad nights -- gunfire.

The Cook Out on New Bern Avenue provides a last breath of fun once the clubs let out, a place to show off the car's spinning rims and subwoofers that can be heard a block away.

But Raleigh's late-night culture sometimes turns violent. The Cook Out racked up 374 police calls in the past 25 months, records show. On Sept. 7, officers investigated a report of shots fired at 3 a.m.

It's a notorious record for a fast-food spot, and the restaurant endures its reputation because the wee-hours crowd pays so well. The Cook Out was built for burgers after midnight, owner Jeremy Reaves explains, and security guards don't always show up.

Just by staying open so late, the Cook Out turns into a mixing bowl for hungry students, fun-seeking club hoppers and dangerous youths -- all outside neighbors' windows.

"It's very scary," said Zelda McCullers, who lives across the street. "The kids come right in my yard. This neighborhood has changed for the worse, and [Cook Out] isn't helping."

Real estate records show the Greensboro-based chain came to New Bern Avenue in late 2001, though Reaves said it opened a year later.

It's a familiar design to the Triangle, which Reaves said hosts about nine of his restaurants. The typical Cook Out is a thin building with mirrored windows, twin drive-throughs and a walk-up, serving burgers, onion rings and barbecue -- comfort foot that's fried, juicy and cheap.

The trouble doesn't start till 2 a.m., manager Debbie Moorhouse said. College students. High school kids. Neighborhood kids. They all converge in the parking lot, spilling out into the street, lounging on bumpers.

On Saturday, a young man spread out on the roof of a Cadillac and watched women pass in stiletto heels and short club skirts.

"I understand people's concerns," Moorhouse said. "There's fights. Honestly, I don't know what to do. This is a business. I'm not going to shut down because there's people out of line."

Intimidating place

Camilla Lewis worked there as a co-manager and recently left to work at the Cook Out in Cary.

She was working on the night of a shooting, she said, and employees crowded in the back for safety.

Twice, she said, she has had to pull a knife on an aggressive panhandler.

"The reason I quit is we cater to the crowd that smokes marijuana and is very intoxicated," Lewis said. "There's fights. Many, many fights."

St. Augustine's College student Machere Johnston said students often frequent the Cook Out, and she has been there at 2 a.m. But hunger -- not thrill seeking -- draws the college students, she said.

"That's the only place that's open," she said. "A lot of times, college kids are scared to go down the street."

Off-duty Raleigh police officers work as security guards, Moorhouse said, but they don't always come. Police spokesman Jim Sughrue forwarded the department's off-duty work policy, which requires that officers get approval from supervisors and not create conflicts with on-duty performance.

Hearing about the no-shows, Reaves said he would hire private security as backup.

"Whatever we need to do to make people happy," he said.

To McCullers and neighborhood activists, the solution is simple: Close earlier. That's what the Bojangles does next door.

Reaves stopped short of cutting back hours.

"We're not going to do that," he said. "That's why I opened that location."

Bojangles is no comparison. Bojangles means biscuits, not burgers, and biscuit-eaters are a decidedly morning crowd.

The late-night crowd -- the Cadillac-loungers and the stiletto-heel wearers -- take their meals with a little more danger on the side.

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

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