COVINA — To teen-agers, a large shopping center parking lot near the In-N-Out Burgers on Grand Avenue is a hang-out haven. To police, it's a heavy-duty headache.
Not that the affinity of teen-agers for fast-food restaurants is anything new. Drive-through restaurants have been attracting young people for decades, leading to litter, noise and an occasional fight.
But rarely, authorities say, are such fast-food restaurant problems on the scale experienced at In-N-Out Burgers at 1371 Grand Ave., where on warm summer nights the boisterous crowd can easily swell to more than 500. Even when the mercury dips into the low 40s, as it did one recent Friday night, it's not unusual to find 100 or more youths gathered in the parking lot.
The In-N-Out and the adjacent 250,000-square-foot parking lot attract youths from nearby cities such as Glendora and Azusa and from as far away as Pomona and the San Fernando Valley.
The crowd includes honor students and gang members. Some teen-agers are introduced to drugs and alcohol there, and through a team of evangelists who show up every weekend, others discover Jesus Christ.
"It's like Arnold's from 'Happy Days,' " said Jeff Flores of West Covina who frequents the In-N-Out and compared it to the popular teen hangout on the television show.
In-N-Outs and other fast-food restaurants elsewhere in the San Gabriel Valley are also popular with young people, but few cause police officers as many problems. For example, Lt. Ken Jeske of the El Monte Police Department said fast-food restaurants in that city attract young weekend cruisers too. But the gatherings number no more than 60 people, most of whom belong to various car clubs and cause police few problems.
The In-N-Out, however, has developed a rougher and at times violent atmosphere in the past year or so. Police say they have spotted skinheads, who espouse white supremacist views, and increasing numbers of gang members, including Bloods and Crips, two Los Angeles-based gangs whose members identify themselves by wearing red or blue.
"You don't see as many faces that you recognize," said Ted Housden, a manager at In-N-Out.
Housden used to break up an occasional fight between teen-agers, many of whom he knew by name, who were "wanna-bes" and not real gang members, he said. Nowadays, Housden doesn't dare jump into the middle of a fight, preferring to leave crowd control to two private security guards provided by In-N-Out's corporate headquarters.
"We've been assaulted," said Walt Gamberale, a security guard. "We've had all kinds of threats made at us."
On weekends, the In-N-Out locks its restrooms at 10 p.m., although the restaurant is open until 1:30 a.m.
"If we don't close (them) at 10, by 10:30 there is damage," said Housden. Even so, five sinks have been replaced in the last six months, he said.
An Alpha-Beta grocery store, the only other business in the nearby shopping center that stays open as late as the restaurant, also locks its restrooms. In addition, it blocks access to its storerooms with pallets.
"You learn to live with it," said Mark Nelson, a night manager at Alpha Beta. "When it gets really bad, we call the Covina Police Department."
In 1988, Covina police responded to 226 calls at In-N-Out, on a variety of complaints from public drunkenness to assault, to a stabbing about three months ago that left one victim with a punctured kidney.
Extra Police Patrols
"There have been arrests there for cocaine and marijuana, for both sales and use," said officer Vic Lupu.
To combat the problems at the restaurant, Police Chief John Lentz recently sought $10,000 to cover anticipated overtime for extra patrols. The City Council, reluctant to spend that much for police coverage of one business, called for a closer look at the problem.
"When we respond that often to a particular site, that means we're leaving other parts of the city uncovered," said Mayor Bob Low. "It's not fair to the rest of the community."
Bob Williams, vice president of operations for In-N-Out, said the company is willing to do almost anything to cooperate with city and police officials. The company offered to pay for extra police patrols, but the city declined after the city attorney said state law prohibits cities from charging for police service.
The company will do almost anything short of closing early on weekends, said Williams. The restaurant sells about 900 hamburgers on a weeknight, and on weekends, sales nearly double.
On Feb. 1, Lentz and other city officials met with representatives of In-N-Out to try to establish a plan of action. The company agreed to set up temporary wooden barricades to block off a large section of the parking lot on Friday and Saturday nights.
The company has also bolstered its regular two-men private security force at In-N-Out with additional guards from its corporate office in Baldwin Park. The company, established in 1948, oversees 53 fast-food restaurants in Southern California.