The premium fire-grilled steak burrito is on the menu at Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grill. The Bridgeport fast-casual restaurant says it’s still being affected by fallout from a food poisoning outbreak last summer. (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
As lunchtime customers streamed into Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grill on a recent weekday to order tilapia tacos and steak burritos, there was little sign that a year ago the Bridgeport restaurant was the site of Chicago’s biggest food poisoning outbreak in almost a decade.
The fast-casual restaurant on West 26th Street, which practically sits under the Dan Ryan Expressway, passed two recent city health inspections — one in early June — and next week returns to the 37th annual Taste of Chicago. Last summer, the restaurant had to cancel its Taste appearance as investigators tried to pinpoint the source of an E. coli outbreak that the Chicago Department of Public Health says may have sickened more than 100 people. Fingered months later as the most likely culprit: tainted cilantro.
A year later, however, Carbon Live Fire says it’s still being hurt by the fallout. The restaurant operator is fending off lawsuits filed in Cook County Circuit Court by dozens of people who say they got sick last year after eating at the restaurant. The business, which opened in 2007 and added a location in the West Town neighborhood in 2011, also is sparring in court with South Holland-based Martin Produce, the cilantro supplier that this year was added as a defendant in many diners’ lawsuits. Counterclaims are flying between the restaurant and the produce vendor in the consumer cases.
Insurance costs are up, bad publicity has been hard to shake and has resulted in "substantially decreased revenues," additional money has been spent on new equipment and staff training, and expansion opportunities have been lost, the restaurant argues in a recent court filing that lays out its case for the court to order Martin Produce to pay damages.
Carbon Live Fire, Martin Produce and most of their attorneys did not respond to numerous requests for comment. A spokesman for Liberty Mutual, one of the parties representing the restaurant, declined to comment.
The official tally in last summer’s E. coli outbreak: 69 confirmed and 37 probable cases, according to the city health department. The infected ranged in age from 3 to 69. About 1 in 5 were hospitalized.
Among those allegedly sickened was Chicago resident Breanna Franklin, one of about 50 people suing Carbon Live Fire. She said she was a regular until, on June 18, 2016, she got two tacos for takeout and, after a few days, started getting "really bad stomach cramps."
"Then I started throwing up," Franklin said in an interview.
Initially, she thought it might be stomach flu and felt bad enough to go to Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s emergency room.
Franklin was hospitalized for four days and said she realized that it must have been something she ate after learning that her brother-in-law, who had takeout from the restaurant at the same time, and her best friend, who ate there a couple days later, also got sick.
Either cilantro or salsa fresca, which contains raw cilantro, was consumed in 95 percent of the cases, according to the city. That suggests "a heavily contaminated food item" as opposed to another source, such as a sick restaurant worker, the city says in a 13-page report on the outbreak that was issued in December.
One puzzler: Why did the cilantro allegedly cause an outbreak among Carbon Live Fire diners but not anyone else?
The city’s report says the cilantro distributor serves multiple Illinois restaurants and repackages the leaves from several sources, including suppliers in the state and in Mexico. However, "no other restaurants serviced by the distributor were linked to the outbreak," the city’s report says.
In court filings, Carbon Live Fire and Martin Produce deny responsibility for the outbreak and point the blame at each other.
Kimberly Carter Neschis, of Berwyn, works near Carbon Live Fire’s Bridgeport restaurant, which has provided catering for her workplace numerous times.
She said she got mild stomach cramps on June 28, 2016, a few days after eating tacos and guacamole for lunch. A day later, the pain intensified, forcing her to leave work, she said in an interview.
The next day, she went to Rush Oak Park Hospital, where she spent several hours before being released, she said.
"The timing was awful, as a very dear cousin of mine had passed away and my family was arriving from out of town to attend the services on July 1," said Neschis, who also is suing the restaurant.
After she arrived home and got her guests settled, she returned to the hospital, where she was admitted and stayed for three days, missing her cousin’s funeral, she said.
Neschis and Franklin both are represented by Newland & Newland of Arlington Heights and Marler Clark, a Seattle law firm specializing in food poisoning cases.
Carbon Live Fire, a familiar presence at the Taste of Chicago over the years, pulled out of last July’s festival as the city worked to determine the source of the outbreak, which came to light on June 28, 2016, when the Chicago health department received five reports of E. coli poisoning through a routine check. The health department determined that three of the five people had eaten at Carbon Live Fire a few days before getting sick.
The city inspected the restaurant on July 1 and collected food samples and copies of invoices for items including meat, cheese, produce and salsa. The health department interviewed and tested about 40 employees from both locations, and although none reported any gastrointestinal illness in the two weeks before the outbreak, 16 tested positive for E. coli., according to the city’s report.
The inspection also turned up critical food safety violations, including improper temperatures for foods such as tequila lime sauce, raw fish and guacamole as well as improper hand-washing practices.
Concerned about the potential for an ongoing E. coli threat, the city recommended that the restaurant temporarily shut down and withdraw from last year’s Taste. The restaurant owner complied, a move that "prevented additional cases of illness from occurring," according to the city’s report.
Although contaminated cilantro ended up getting the lion’s share of the blame, the city’s report also points to other likely factors, including "cross-contamination during food preparation and transmission by food handlers who were found to have" E. coli in their systems..
After reinspection and additional training, the West Town and Bridgeport locations reopened on July 9 and 29, respectively, the city’s report says, and "no additional complaints were received in association with the restaurant in the two months following this case’s illness onset."
The last time Chicago had a food poisoning case as large as Carbon Live Fire’s was in 2008, when there was a multistate salmonella outbreak that saw 91 confirmed cases at three Chicago-area restaurants, said Caitlin Polochak, a Chicago Department of Public Health spokeswoman.
While widespread, last summer’s outbreak didn’t match one stemming from the 2007 Taste of Chicago, which involved 191 confirmed cases, though almost 800 people said they suspected getting food poisoning after eating tainted hummus.
The food lineup for 2017’s Taste of Chicago festival was announced Tuesday at an event at La Sardine in the West Loop.
Like all other vendors at this summer’s Taste, Carbon Live Fire had to undergo a thorough review before being admitted to the festival.
Mary May, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said her department, as well as the health department and the Illinois Restaurant Association, "take great care in reviewing, training and inspecting vendors in advance and on-site."
They consider restaurant applicants’ inspection histories for the past three years, she said, and "no applicants with unresolved critical or serious violations are accepted or allowed to serve food at Taste of Chicago." Menu items are "carefully reviewed and approved" with the outside environment and temperature in mind, she said.
At the festival, the health department inspects vendors four times a day, May said.