Hepatitis backlash hits mostly local, Mexican restaurants


PITTSBURGH - Mauri Alva has never served green onions in his El Campesino Mexican restaurant in Monroeville, or three others he's opened in western Pennsylvania over the past 10 years.

Yet, despite the signs he's posted on his restaurants saying so, his business has dropped about 50 percent since green onions were tied last month to a hepatitis A outbreak that sickened at least 635 people and killed three at a Mexican restaurant 30 miles away.

"When we started November, everything, it was fine," Alva said. "Normally, November and December, the sales go up - but I've been looking at the books and (business) has been about half what it was last year."

Alva's restaurants aren't the only Pittsburgh-area eateries reporting a downturn in business attributed to fears spawned by the outbreak in Beaver County.

But a widespread backlash hasn't occurred - and won't, according to an industry expert. He said the local downturn will run its course in the next month or so because onions from Mexico have been singled out as the culprit.

"When you have an identifiable thing that is not the fault of the restaurant ... the pressure goes away pretty quickly," said Malcolm Knapp, a New York City-based adviser to restaurant chains, and an expert on the $23.5 billion "casual dining" industry in the U.S.

"Something like that shouldn't take more than a month or six weeks (to improve) and they're already through the worst of it," Knapp said.

Knapp said restaurants in the southeastern United States actually had it worse than those in the Pittsburgh area.

Smaller outbreaks of hepatitis A sickened more than 300 patrons and killed one in outbreaks from several restaurants in Georgia and Tennessee in late August and September. Because green onions weren't confirmed as the culprit in those outbreaks until weeks later, patrons were in the dark far longer than they were in Pennsylvania.

Louisville, Ky.-based Chi-Chi's has said business is down in its 100 restaurants in 17 states, but won't say by how much. The chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in early October, before the outbreak occurred, citing cash flow problems and officials have since said in court documents that adverse publicity has driven customers away.

The Big Burrito Restaurant Group, which operates several concept restaurants, said only its Pittsburgh-area Mexican restaurants lost business. Big Burrito's signature chain is Mad Mex, with six restaurants - four in an around Pittsburgh, and one each in State College and Philadelphia.

"It's been short-term, but we saw some Saturdays that were off as much as 20 to 25 percent," said Ted Baron, Big Burrito's president. The company also operates Mediterranean, Pan Asian, Japanese and other restaurants, which weren't affected, he said.

"Every newspaper that you open or radio or TV, there's another headline about green onions and Mexican restaurants, so it's not going to help your business," Baron said.

Big Burrito pulled green onions from its menus even before state health officials confirmed they caused the outbreak.

"The Health Department said it seemed like an unnecessary precaution at first; in retrospect, it was an extremely wise thing to do," Baron said.

One of Louisville, Ky.-based Chi-Chi's national competitors, Don Pablo's Mexican Kitchens, which has 108 restaurants in 19 states, has also seen a backlash only in their western Pennsylvania restaurants.

"I wouldn't want to give you a percentage on it, but we have certainly been down," said Greg Graber, vice president of communications for Avado Brands, Don Pablo's Madison, Ga.-based parent company.

"We don't use green onions and we never had. We've certainly educated our employees and our managers and worked with them," on keeping food safe and dealing with questions from the public, Graber said.

Knapp said the hepatitis A backlash isn't likely to have a widespread financial impact on the restaurant industry - although he said the public can be fickle in the way it views risk.

"The same thing could happen to us at home - and it does, by the way, in far larger numbers than it does at restaurants," Knapp said. "Maybe one out of 100 homes could pass a health inspection like those restaurants face."

"(In the United States) 126 people die in car accidents every day, but do people feel unsafe in their car? No, because in the car they think they're in control. That's why if there's an accident in mass transit, there's such an outcry," Knapp said. "When people think they can control the problem, even if they really can't, their perception of risk is lower."