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Chili's Grille in Vernon Hills closes suddenly

Vernon Hills officials were taken by surprise when Chili's Grille and Bar closed on May 12.

Brinker International, owner of the 968-unit franchise, informed the village the restaurant would not reopen nor would it be replaced by any of the other food and dining operations owned by the corporation.

The Dallas-based corporation with about 1,400 restaurants and sales exceeding $3 billion annually, recently announced the closing of 30 restaurants in the United States. The list of under-performing operations included the Vernon Hills Chili's.

"They have withdrawn from the community, and the property is up for sale," said John Kalmar, assistant village manager who confirmed the closing with officials in the corporate real estate division.

"While they're still interested in the community, this location will not be filled by another of their chain stores," Kalmar said. "It's a tremendous location and the village has reached out to eight or nine different companies and real estate firms to bring a use to that location." The corporation also owns the On the Border Mexican Grills and Cantina on Milwaukee Avenue.

Kalmar speculated the widely reported health problems traced to a salmonella outbreak at Chili's last summer may have contributed to the decision not to replace the restaurant with one of its portfolio of dining concepts that include Romano's Macaroni Grill, Maggiano's Little Italy, Big Bowl Asian Kitchen, Rockfish Seafood Grill and the Corner Bakery.

Chili's has restaurants in Gurnee and Round Lake Beach. A manager in Gurnee confirmed Friday that some former employees at the Vernon Hills location have filled local openings there and at other Brinker-owned franchises.

Salmonella Outbreak

The salmonella epidemic affected more than 300 persons who dined at the Vernon Hills restaurant between June 23 and July 1 in 2003. The Lake County Health Department traced the problem to improper handwashing techniques and a management decision to keep the restaurant open for two days even though its water service was interrupted.

The health department interviewed about 1,200 individuals, including 305 people whose illnesses appeared related to the outbreak. Of those, 141 patrons and 28 employees tested positive for salmonella. Another 106 patrons met the "probable" case definition.

Chili's reopened July 11 after passing required health tests and after it underwent extensive cleaning and sanitizing and retraining of employees. No fines or other punitive action was taken because the restaurant acted in a cooperative manner after the bacterial health problems surfaced.

Brinker agreed to reimburse the county for $32,500 in expenses connected to the unusual costs for testing and staff training.

Many of the victims have sought legal assistance to deal with the health issues. The Waukegan firm of Salvi, Schostok and Pritchard the Seattle-based Marler Clark filed several lawsuits against the Brinker corporation.

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