Embattled downtown eatery tied to luncheon that sickened 70 health workers

December 23, 2016 GMT

State regulators say the Department of Health holiday luncheon that resulted in several dozen employees reporting symptoms of food poisoning was catered by a local restaurant that did not have a permit to serve food at the event.

New Mexico Environment Department inspectors slapped Bad Ass Sandwich Co., recently renamed Kick Ass Sandwich Shop, with a notice of violation when they dropped in on the West Palace Avenue restaurant this week and found it did not have a permit for catering.

The founder of the business told The New Mexican that his company did not cater the luncheon. Instead, Shannon Quintana said Department of Health staff ordered the restaurant’s food to be served alongside other dishes brought by employees.

But the Environment Department, which is responsible for regulating food safety around the state, depicts it as an open-and-shut case.

The vendor prepared the food, delivered it to the event at the Harold Runnels Building and served it — all of which requires a permit, Environment Department spokeswoman Allison Majure said.

About 70 Department of Health employees claim to have suffered gastrointestinal issues after the staff luncheon at the public health authority’s headquarters on South St. Francis Drive.

Health Department epidemiologists believe the outbreak was caused by cross-contamination of meats, which led to the spread of clostridium perfringens.

The bacteria is among the most common causes of food poisoning, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. Clostridium perfringens thrives when food is prepared in large quantities and then kept warm at temperatures below 140 degrees for long periods of time before serving.

An epidemiologist for the New Mexico Department of Health, which investigates disease outbreaks, told KOAT-TV she suffered abdominal cramps and “a little bit of diarrhea for a couple of hours.”

The Environment Department’s Majure said in an email, “We are simultaneously working with the vendor to determine the source of the ailments and to take appropriate steps to eliminate such causes in the future, including possible penalties. We reiterated to them that they cannot cater if they are not permitted to do so.”

The restaurant could face a fine of up to $500. The notice issued Wednesday did not list any concerns about food handling or preparation, only licensing. The restaurant does not have any record of violations with the Environment Department, the spokeswoman said.

Opened earlier this year, Bad Ass Sandwich Co. changed its name in recent weeks to Kick Ass Sandwich Shop after a Utah-based coffee company with a similar name filed a trademark infringement lawsuit.

A Department of Health spokesman said the agency was not aware the restaurant was not licensed to cater.

“If a restaurant doesn’t have the appropriate permit, we would expect them to refuse our request to cater an event — just as anyone else would expect,” Paul Rhien said in an email.

The luncheon was paid for by department employees, who raise money to host the annual holiday party, he said.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.