Chipotle GM removed over food safety concerns

Tanner Sutton, Writer

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The Powell Chipotle has recently been under fire for its food safety concerns, but a year later we are again reminded of former troubles with the Health Department. General Manager Heather Watkins has been fired after an almost six month tenure at the Powell franchise. Just a week before her termination, she sat down for an interview with the Patriot Press.

During the interview, Watkins listed the many ways that the store has improved, and how she planned to keep it that way. Corporate Chipotle, however, had other plans after she allowed an employee to work while exhibiting symptoms of food-poisoning.

“If you experience any food-related illness symptoms like cramping, vomiting, nausea, headaches, stuff like that, you’re not permitted to work three days after the last symptom,” explained Chipotle employee Ian McCabe. He went on to reveal that although one of his coworkers reported such symptoms, Watkins convinced her to attend work anyway because the shift was short-staffed. 

“Complaints came in from customers as well as food safety concerns.. This sparked an investigation into Powell Chipotle leading to the determination that Heather Watkins was in direct violation of company policy leading to her direct termination.” McCabe also added that the investigation was swift as the incident occurred just two weeks before our interview with Watkins.

Finding a new GM is just another item added to the to-do list the store is dealing with. According to a source employed at Chipotle, whose name has been changed at their request, the franchise has been in the midst of a hiring frenzy for the last month, and understaffed well before that.

“A staffed shift is 8 or 9 people per shift, there’s a box on the schedule that tells you how many people you need for each shift and its rarely ever fulfilled.” said employee John Smith. He added that although they have had a constant need for new employees for over a year, the situation only hit its breaking point within the last month.

Much of this comes as a result of the Norovirus outbreak over a year ago, when nearly 700 people grew ill from eating Chipotle. In order to get to the source of the disease, corporate required all of their employees to participate in legal depositions. Many employees however, already fed up with the Chipotle’s handling of the situation, quit on the spot. “Lots of guys just didn’t want to do that, so they just straight up quit their jobs,” Smith said.

But the franchise’s lack of employees could also be attributed to the now former GM Watkins. In the months leading up to her termination she was advised by several employees to bring in new hands in anticipation of the back-to-school season. Her response was to instead shift the store’s focus on relatively minor issues.

“It’s infuriating because instead of focusing on those issues they’ll just be like ‘Hey, this one label is written wrong, do you want to be fired or not?’ They clearly just don’t care about us.”

Heather Watkins responded by pinning the crisis on their high standards. “Part of the reason why we’re short-staffed is because we’re trying to hire people that care, people that want to work here and do a great job. If you don’t want to do a great job, unfortunately, you won’t be able to work here because the standards here that Delaware County expects of us are really important.”

But the staff wasn’t the only thing overhauled after the sickness. The Powell Chipotle met with the Delaware County Health Department to outline new regulations for the store in regards to food safety. Some of the regulations include taking hourly temperature measurements, putting food on ice immediately after prep, and deep cleaning the store every so often. To ensure that all regulations are upheld, General Manager Heather Watkins had a strict policy for herself and her employees.

“I literally do all the prep every morning with my team, so I’m not missing anything. Even if I have two people I’m gonna make sure everything is done correctly.” said Watkins, the sixth GM of the Powell branch.

And it seems all the rigor surrounding food safety seems to have succeeded in turning the store around. According to Watkins, they have passed EcoSure audits with a higher score than the Powell store have ever achieved. EcoLab, who conducts the audits, is a company hired by restaurants to test their food safety practices.

“It does hurt me when people talk about everyone getting sick because we’re not the same as we were a year ago; I wasn’t here a year ago, the employees that were here a year ago are not here.”

Many employees, however, are applauding the GM’s termination, saying that she was an unfair boss, and unfit to run the store. According to Smith, staffers had been asking for raises and just overall more respect, but their concerns were met with more micro-management of the store. 

Smith, one of the lowest paid and, in his opinion, hardest working employees, said “I know that me and another guy are pretty close to leaving, and if that happens, the store is f*****, because once we leave, there’s gonna be a lot of crew members who have told us ‘When you guys are gone we’re out.’ So then the understaffing problems gonna be even worse. We’re definitely on a tightrope.”

One of the employees’ main hopes is for management to raise their wages to compensate for the added stress. But when asked about it, Heather Watkins said that existing employees would not get any additional raises outside of those already agreed upon at their hiring. Despite this, she has increased the starting pay to incoming employees in order to entice them to take the job.

Before Watkins was terminated, John Smith had lost hope in the store completely, saying, “If the understaffing crisis continues to be this bad we’re definitely going under.”

During the interview, Watkins listed the many ways that the store has improved, and how she planned to keep it that way. Corporate Chipotle, however, had other plans after she allowed an employee to work while exhibiting symptoms of food-poisoning.

“If you experience any food-related illness symptoms like cramping, vomiting, nausea, headaches, stuff like that, you’re not permitted to work three days after the last symptom,” explained Chipotle employee Ian McCabe. He went on to reveal that although one of his coworkers reported such symptoms, Watkins convinced her to attend work anyway because the shift was short-staffed. 

“Complaints came in from customers as well as food safety concerns.. This sparked an investigation into Powell Chipotle leading to the determination that Heather Watkins was in direct violation of company policy leading to her direct termination.” McCabe also added that the investigation was swift as the incident occurred just two weeks before our interview with Watkins.

Finding a new GM is just another item added to the to-do list the store is dealing with. According to a source employed at Chipotle, whose name has been changed at their request, the franchise has been in the midst of a hiring frenzy for the last month, and understaffed well before that.

“A staffed shift is 8 or 9 people per shift, there’s a box on the schedule that tells you how many people you need for each shift and its rarely ever fulfilled.” said employee John Smith. He added that although they have had a constant need for new employees for over a year, the situation only hit its breaking point within the last month.

Much of this comes as a result of the Norovirus outbreak over a year ago, when nearly 700 people grew ill from eating Chipotle. In order to get to the source of the disease, corporate required all of their employees to participate in legal depositions. Many employees however, already fed up with the Chipotle’s handling of the situation, quit on the spot. “Lots of guys just didn’t want to do that, so they just straight up quit their jobs,” Smith said.

But the franchise’s lack of employees could also be attributed to the now former GM Watkins. In the months leading up to her termination she was advised by several employees to bring in new hands in anticipation of the back-to-school season. Her response was to instead shift the store’s focus on relatively minor issues.

“It’s infuriating because instead of focusing on those issues they’ll just be like ‘Hey, this one label is written wrong, do you want to be fired or not?’ They clearly just don’t care about us.”

Heather Watkins responded by pinning the crisis on their high standards. “Part of the reason why we’re short-staffed is because we’re trying to hire people that care, people that want to work here and do a great job. If you don’t want to do a great job, unfortunately, you won’t be able to work here because the standards here that Delaware County expects of us are really important.”

But the staff wasn’t the only thing overhauled after the sickness. The Powell Chipotle met with the Delaware County Health Department to outline new regulations for the store in regards to food safety. Some of the regulations include taking hourly temperature measurements, putting food on ice immediately after prep, and deep cleaning the store every so often. To ensure that all regulations are upheld, General Manager Heather Watkins had a strict policy for herself and her employees.

“I literally do all the prep every morning with my team, so I’m not missing anything. Even if I have two people I’m gonna make sure everything is done correctly.” said Watkins, the sixth GM of the Powell branch.

And it seems all the rigor surrounding food safety seems to have succeeded in turning the store around. According to Watkins, they have passed EcoSure audits with a higher score than the Powell store have ever achieved. EcoLab, who conducts the audits, is a company hired by restaurants to test their food safety practices.

“It does hurt me when people talk about everyone getting sick because we’re not the same as we were a year ago; I wasn’t here a year ago, the employees that were here a year ago are not here.”

Many employees, however, are applauding the GM’s termination, saying that she was an unfair boss, and unfit to run the store. According to Smith, staffers had been asking for raises and just overall more respect, but their concerns were met with more micro-management of the store. 

Smith, one of the lowest paid and, in his opinion, hardest working employees, said “I know that me and another guy are pretty close to leaving, and if that happens, the store is f*****, because once we leave, there’s gonna be a lot of crew members who have told us ‘When you guys are gone we’re out.’ So then the understaffing problems gonna be even worse. We’re definitely on a tightrope.”

One of the employees’ main hopes is for management to raise their wages to compensate for the added stress. But when asked about it, Heather Watkins said that existing employees would not get any additional raises outside of those already agreed upon at their hiring. Despite this, she has increased the starting pay to incoming employees in order to entice them to take the job.

Before Watkins was terminated, John Smith had lost hope in the store completely, saying, “If the understaffing crisis continues to be this bad we’re definitely going under.”

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