Eaters head to Chipotle as it reopens in Northwest

Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press

Seattle — Customers returned to Pacific Northwest Chipotle restaurants on Wednesday as the chain reopened after an E. coli outbreak that sickened about 45 people in Washington state and Oregon.

Matt Gilham, 34, said he wasn’t particularly concerned about the health scare connected to 11 restaurants in the two states, but not the restaurant where he picked up his lunch on Wednesday.

“These things just happen from time to time,” said Gilham, who stopped by the restaurant with his whole team from work. Gilham, who eats at Chipotle about once a month, said they also visited the casual restaurant on Tuesday and were disappointed it wasn’t open yet.

Chipotle voluntarily closed 43 restaurants in Washington state and Oregon at the end of October after health officials discovered most of the people sickened in an E. coli outbreak had one thing in common: a recent meal at Chipotle. The outbreak hospitalized more than a dozen people.

Health officials from the two states have not found the source of the E. coli outbreak, despite testing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of food samples from each of the affected restaurants. Chipotle also did its own testing and did not find any food contaminated by E. coli.

The restaurant chain was allowed to reopen its Northwest outlets after completing a thorough cleaning, replacing all the fresh food and adopting some new protocols for washing fresh produce. Chipotle also committed voluntarily to a regularly testing food coming into its restaurants for bacteria that could cause foodborne illnesses.

“We offer our most sincere apologies to customers who have been affected by this incident. We have redoubled our efforts to enhance our food safety practices in order to ensure that our food is as safe as it can be,” said Steve Ells, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle, in a statement.

Thirty restaurants reopened for lunch on Wednesday and the company expected to have all 43 back in business by Thursday, said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold.

That was good news to Eddie Black, 60, who admitted he usually eats at Chipotle two or three times a week.

“I was very anxious to get back,” Black said outside a Seattle Chipotle. “I think they make good clean food.”

He said he wasn’t concerned about food safety after the E. coli outbreak because — like health officials said earlier this week — Chipotle was probably the safest restaurant in town after all the cleaning and restocking.

“It’s probably the safest time to eat here,” Black said.

He noted that the restaurant had a steady stream of customers but not the lines he usually sees at lunchtime on a weekday.

Harrison Walter, 28, said he decided to eat at Chipotle on Wednesday because his enjoyment of the food was greater than his fear of getting sick.

“I’ve been craving Chipotle for the last week and a half,” Walter said. “I don’t think they have the highest standards of health but I really enjoy their food.”