Oakland restaurant reopens after E. coli outbreak

County still looking for bacteria's source

The menu was limited at The Porch, but customers weren't in short supply Thursday as the restaurant reopened following an E. coli outbreak.

Five people were sickened by the bacteria after visiting The Porch at Schenley in Oakland, a popular bistro owned by the Eat'n Park Hospitality Group. The outbreak apparently went on for weeks, with the first positive E. coli test coming Oct. 1 and the fifth positive test occurring the weekend of Oct. 26.

That news didn't deter loyal customers. The restaurant was about half full at lunchtime Thursday, with customers ranging from a table of toddlers in Halloween costumes to grad students to Oakland office workers.

"They've cleaned it -- I figure it's probably safer than a lot of other places today," said Sarah Wilson of Squirrel Hill, who stopped in with her husband for a chicken Caesar salad on their way Downtown.

Her husband, Joe, is a fan of the restaurant's open atmosphere and outdoor setting and plans to keep a lunchtime business meeting he scheduled there next week. "I saw they were re-opening today," he said. "There's times you have to support people, and this is one of them."

While isolated cases of E. coli, a naturally occurring bacteria, are not unusual, outbreaks tied to restaurants are rare. "It's not something we commonly see," said Guillermo Cole, spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department.

The strain of E. coli in question, 0157:H7, can cause severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. Symptoms usually appear three or four days after exposure. Because of the time involved in the appearance of symptoms and the time for the lab results to come in, it took the health department weeks to tie the E. coli outbreak to the restaurant, Mr. Cole said.

The restaurant was closed Tuesday night and Wednesday for an "A to Z" cleaning, he said. The health department is continuing to investigate the source of the bacteria, which is commonly linked to beef but can also be found in vegetables or juice, or spread through poor hygiene. The investigation is expected to take days, if not weeks, he said.

"Typically these things take quite a long time to unwind," said Pam Ritz, a spokeswoman for The Porch.

Employees are being tested for E. coli before they can return to work, she said. The restaurant has set up a toll-free hotline, at 1-855-368-8888, to answer any questions from the public.

Restaurants, and popular brands like Eat'n Park, must tread extremely carefully after "negative news" events such as this, said Bob O'Gara, a professor of public relations and advertising at Point Park University.

"Basically, their reputation is at stake," he said. "It's tricky because you're dealing with a trusted institution that has a long-term following.

"But in a competitive world, consumers have a lot of options."

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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