Chipotle Says Sick Employee Led to 135 Illnesses in Sterling, Va.

Chipotle says it believes a sick employee may be the culprit behind a reported outbreak of norovirus that caused as many as 135 patrons of a Virginia restaurant to get sick last week.

The Sterling, Virginia location came under fire last week after patrons reported symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain after dining at the restaurant.

After the company reported improved sales for the second quarter Tuesday, CEO Steve Ells said on a conference call with investors that a company investigation into the illnesses found that its leadership at the store didn't adhere to its protocols.

“We believe someone was working while sick,'' Ells said, without giving specifics.

The Loudoun County Health Department has been looking into the outbreak.

Given ”how quickly symptoms develop with norovirus and the large number of folks involved, we will likely not be able to determine whether a patron or employee was the first to introduce the virus to the facility,'' said David Goodfriend, director of the Loudoun County Health Department.

The Sterling Chipotle temporarily closed after reports that a small number of customers had gotten sick. It reopened the following day.

A Chipotle representative noted that employees are not supposed to work when ill, and the company offers paid sick days for hourly employees. Ells said the company is adding training to what he called “excellent” protocols to prevent further norovirus cases.

Chipotle's image has been vulnerable as it tries to reassure customers its food is safe since an E. coli outbreak in fall 2015, which was followed by a norovirus outbreak at a single restaurant that same year. Norovirus is a leading cause of illnesses from contaminated food, and infected employees are a frequent source of outbreaks.

The company is hoping that buzz around a potential national launch of queso will tempt customers as it tries to move past the food scares. Executives repeatedly mentioned the cheese dip during a conference call Tuesday, and said excitement around the item might change the narrative following last week's bad publicity.

“We're talking a lot about this one particular menu item, but you shouldn't underestimate how much potential it has,” said Mark Crumpacker, who heads Chipotle's marketing.

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