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E. coli doesn't scare Chipotle fans

| Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
In this Dec. 15, 2015, photo, a Chipotle Mexican Grill employee prepares food in Seattle. After an E. coli outbreak that sickened more than 50 people, Chipotle is changing its cooking methods to prevent the nightmare situation from happening again.
In this Dec. 15, 2015, photo, a Chipotle Mexican Grill employee prepares food in Seattle. After an E. coli outbreak that sickened more than 50 people, Chipotle is changing its cooking methods to prevent the nightmare situation from happening again.

Anne and Jeff Owens love Chipotle. They love it so much that they went there on their wedding day four years ago — she, radiant in her strapless wedding gown and a veiled fascinator in her hair, and he, in his tuxedo and teal vest — to order burritos and pose for photos.

They love it so much that the Blacksburg, Va., couple goes back each Aug. 13, their anniversary, to re-create those photos, with their 3-year-old daughter in tow. They love it so much that even now — even with Chipotle Mexican Grill linked to hundreds of cases of illness because of E. coli, salmonella and norovirus — they still go at least once a week.

“We're totally willing to throw up a little for tradition,” Anne says. She laughs, then pauses. “That's probably gross,” she says. “That's so gross!” But even if their anniversary had come during the height of the outbreak, she adds, “we totally would have gone.”

Four years into their marriage, “we're still in love with our favorite burrito place,” she says.

For many others, the honeymoon phase with the beloved brand is over. Chipotle's sales have taken a hit, and its stock price is falling. The company has been served with a grand jury subpoena related to one outbreak of norovirus in California and is being sued by shareholders who allege that they were deceived about the company's food-safety practices. Meanwhile, 500 people have been sickened nationwide, and in the E. coli cases, Chipotle still hasn't figured out which ingredient is the culprit.

But it's not like anyone has died. So Chipotle fans will keep eating their burritos until someone, um, does. And maybe even after that.

“Sorry but I still love chipotle.And you have to take risks when it comes to love,” tweeted user @calisalafia_.

“since i continue to eat chipotle knowing the risk i guess you could say i would die for chipotle,” @GNVZT tweeted.

Because what other fast-food restaurant — ahem, fast-casual restaurant — inspires its fans to Photoshop burritos into classic rom-com movie scenes or pen 1,000-word essays on their love-hate feelings about the restaurant (“When you have three bites left of a burrito but you can't breathe so you go through the struggle of leaving an embarrassing amount left or finishing it,” lamented an Elite Daily post), or draw burrito-shaped pie charts (“How I spend my money”: one-eighth on rent, seven-eighths on Chipotle).

Members of the cult of Chipotle have been inspired to wear an aluminum-foil burrito costume on Halloween and make burrito-shaped cakes, and one persuaded people to shell out $1,050 on Kickstarter to help him fulfill his dream of filming himself eating a Chipotle burrito while skydiving.

“Sometimes, something gets some sort of odd cult following, and it builds upon itself,” says Anne Owens, who knows of other Chipotle devotees through blogs that round up pictures of fan photos. “We're among this strange underbelly of Chipotle-obsessed weirdos, and we love our kind. I feel like that doesn't happen for McDonald's.”

Her friends have tried to get her to stop eating at the restaurant.

“They make fun of us,” she says. “They ask us if we get sick because they know how often we go. They laugh and say, ‘If you guys give up on Chipotle, there's no chance' ” that the brand could bounce back.

Andrew Hawryluk, who ate at Chipotle for 186 days straight and chronicled it on his blog, Chipotlife, says that although his streak has ended, he hasn't shied away from eating there, either. He was upset about the E. coli scare “mainly because I truly believe in the restaurant's mission,” Hawryluk told Business Insider.

But even those who don't share Owens's and Hawryluk's level of fandom are sticking to Chipotle like salt on the rim of a margarita glass. Although the lines are shorter than usual at the Logan Circle location in Washington, D.C., customers on a recent day seemed unconcerned about the outbreaks, eating their tacos and burrito bowls without hesitation — even after a reporter interrupted their lunch to ask some potentially stomach-turning questions.

“I've never had an issue, and I eat Chipotle all the time,” said Lauren Stafford, 33, a social media marketer who eats at the restaurant as often as three times a week.

“If I'm not sick, I'm not stopping eating Chipotle,” said cab driver Yanemsew Zegeye, 29, who eats a vegetarian Chipotle meal every weekday.

“Chains in general, if they have scares, they're super-regulated after the fact,” said Chandish Nester, 27, a student. “They try to really get a handle on it.”

After all, Jack in the Box came back, even after four children died 20 years ago from eating undercooked burgers tainted with E. coli. An ad of its mascot exploding the company boardroom signaled a fresh start.

But for a company that bills itself as “food with integrity,” it could take a larger goodwill gesture to bring back fairweather fans. This weekend, customers thought that gesture had arrived in the form of a $1 burrito promotion — with free guacamole — “to regain public trust.” Except the promotion didn't come from Chipotle, but from a parody site called Satira Tribune. Enough people believed it, or wanted to believe it, to force some poor Chipotle social media manager to spend his day quelling the rumors over Twitter.

Even though the outbreaks , which hit the West Coast and Boston hardest, but sickened only one person in Maryland, with E. coli, have subsided, there were still a few wary regular customers.

“This was my first time coming” since the scare, said Sonni Nucci, 29, a general contractor. “I gave it a couple of months, just in case. I figure by now they have some new chickens in the back.”

He dove into an order of chicken tacos with “all three salsas, cheese and a little sour cream. And my buddy turned me on to the vinaigrette mix —you ever have that? You gotta dabble,” Nucci said.

Would he stick with the brand?

“Always,” he affirmed. “Well, unless people start dying.”

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