HEPATITIS OUTBREAK Regional Mexican eateries take precautions, fare well
One restaurant is having all employees tested for hepatitis A.
By LAURE CIOFFI
and NANCY TULLIS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS
Touting his food as authentic Mexican, Roberto Montes says there is no comparison with chains like Chi Chi's.
"Chi Chi's is not Mexican food," said Montes, manager of El Canelo Restaurant on Wilmington Road in New Castle, Pa.
And because of that distinction, Montes said his business has not been affected by news of the hepatitis A outbreak in neighboring Beaver County that has sickened more than 500 people.
Monday's lunch crowd quickly filled up the booths and tables at the former Wendy's location. Montes said his workers always have followed good food-handling practices since opening last year.
Other Mexican restaurants in the Mahoning Valley say they, too, have seen no negative change in customers since the Chi Chi's outbreak was made public. Some have even seen more customers.
"In the past two weekends, we've been pretty busy," said Celerina Ramirez, owner of Casa Ramirez Mexican Restaurant on Mahoning Avenue on Youngstown's West Side. "We've been busier than usual. It's the home-cooked meals. We are not a chain."
Ramirez noted that she does not use scallions in her food, pinpointed as a possible cause to the hepatitis A outbreak in Pennsylvania. Her restaurant has been in business for nine years.
At Caballo Bayo restaurant in Boardman, food handlers are taking extra precautions, said manager Israel Zambrano. The restaurant has been opened for about a year.
"We've been washing everything," he said. The meat used is no longer frozen, but bought fresh every day, too, Zambrano said.
Oscar McBenttes, manager of Salsitas in Austintown, says his patrons have been very complimentary of his restaurant's cleanliness since word of the hepatitis A outbreak surfaced.
"It all depends on how you run your business. If you have the right people working for you, it makes all the difference," McBenttes said. Salsitas has been opened for about nine months.
Victor Pacheco, manager of La Fiesta Brava and owner of El Tenampa Mexican restaurants in Salem and Leetonia, respectively, said employees at both restaurants will be tested for hepatitis A as a precaution.
"It's better to be safe than sorry," Pacheco said.
There are six employees at La Fiesta Brava -- himself included -- and four at El Tenampa.
Pacheco said business has not been affected at either store because of the hepatitis outbreak.
La Fiesta Brava has been in operation in Salem for three years. El Tenampa opened in Leetonia about 18 months ago. Pacheco said they don't use green onions in either restaurant. They never have.
"This is a big concern for people, and I can understand why," he said. "I would not want to eat at such a restaurant until I knew that it was safe."
Other Chi Chi's spots
Meanwhile, a Chi Chi's spokeswoman says business is continuing at other Chi Chi's locations. The chain has restaurants in Boardman, Niles and Hermitage.
"The whole deal was an isolated incident at the Beaver Valley location," said April MacIntyre. "The other restaurants are open for business. Some of them in the immediate area are not as robust as they normally are. But people who are following this know their local restaurant managers and how well these people are trained."
But the general public does have questions, said Gary Bonelli, health officer in New Castle.
Immediately after the hepatitis A outbreak, his office was getting calls from people who ate at other Chi Chi's restaurants and were worried.
He also has been making sure restaurants are following proper food-handling procedures.
Bonelli said most restaurants make food preparers wear gloves and others are planning to use gloves.
"They are very cooperative with it. It seems to have awakened some of them to the fact that if something were to happen in their establishment, it could be devastating to the business," he said.
Pearle Burlingame, Mahoning County Farm Bureau organization director, said no one has called the farm bureau office with questions about produce or the hepatitis outbreak.
She said proper food handling is critical to prevent the spread of disease.
"The producers are not at fault in this situation because producers have no control over what people do with food after it's out of their hands," she said.
"People need to be very careful handling food, all down the line, especially if vegetables are going to be served raw," Burlingame continued. "You can't just take an onion or a potato out of a field and eat it. It has to be washed thoroughly. You have to keep vegetables away from raw meat. Never use the same cutting board for both."