Chipotle. Not exactly hopping. Photo: David Hammond

I’ve admired what Chipotle has tried to do: serve largely local and sustainably harvested food, all tasty if not exactly adventurous, within a fast-casual format, for a reasonable price. Chipotle, I think, has done well at achieving its primary goals. Although I’ve posted about relatively minor problems with service issues at Chipotle – blown up to preposterious proportions by angry and largely anonymous commenters on this board – I recognize that mine were probably one-off problems and perhaps not symptomatic of any larger corporate problems.

Much larger than my happenstance service issues with Chipotle, however, are several major and somewhat scary health-related problems that have emerged in the past 60 days so. As reported on Chipotle’s website, during October there had been outbreaks of e. coli at eleven Chipotle locations in Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon, and the site went on to say that into early December there were reports of problems in California, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Maryland…and Illinois.

When I visited Chipotle earlier this week, I did so with some trepidation (not really fear, but more just unease). The place, usually quite crowded, was mostly empty, and there’s a cloud of doubt hanging over it, a concern, perhaps not entirely unfounded, that maybe you’re gambling with your health by eating there.

I posted a picture of the deserted Chipotle dining room on Facebook with the tongue-in-cheek caption, “Eating on the edge.” Very quickly, I received the following comments:

 “Careful.”

 “Good luck.”

 “Is it local? Gaaa ickkkkk dead!”

 “Trying the new listeria flour tortilla?”

 And, in reference to my earlier oakpark.com post:

 “Remember NOT 2 violate da sneeze shield!”

I was, indeed, careful not to move anywhere near the sneeze shield, and although Carolyn and I both enjoyed our bowls of carnitas and barbacoa, one couldn’t help but feel sadness for a local restaurant that was once so popular and that is now evidently considered by many to be a place where dinner could make you very sick.

But is the threat of getting sick from eating at Chipotle a real concern?

Chipotle contends that “Any ingredient that may have been linked to the E. coli incident is no longer in our supply chain.” Just as importantly, the case could be made that there has never been a higher state of alert at the restaurant, never a time when the staff would not be more concerned about food safety because, after all, if nothing else, their jobs depend upon it.

Multiple occurrences of food-borne illnesses over a brief period could kill lesser restaurants. But Chipotle is much beloved, has their heart in the right place and serves food that’s better than at most fast-casual places. I think they will weather this storm of negative publicity, however deserved, and maybe even come out stronger.

From a food safety perspective, Chipotle may very well be one of the most closely scrutinized – and thus safest – restaurants in the Village. If I were out Christmas shopping this weekend in Downtown Oak Park, I’d feel as safe dining there as I would at any other area restaurant.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...

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