Panic Attack

County Attorney Andrew Thomas may have pulled the trigger too quickly on Ajo Al's

Most restaurants start with a dream or a corporate scheme. Ajo Al's started with a horrific car accident.

Karen Dains recounts the bare facts of the accident with detachment: Colorado Springs, 1980. Another driver braking too suddenly; her young family's car skidding off the road; her back broken.

Even today, at 54, Dains is confined to a wheelchair. But the insurance settlement, a tidy $200,000, provided seed money for what would become her family's chain of four Mexican restaurants across the Valley, all called Ajo Al's.

Dennis and Karen Dains (pictured with four of their five children) built Ajo Al's -- and now worry that they'll lose it.
Martha Strachan
Dennis and Karen Dains (pictured with four of their five children) built Ajo Al's -- and now worry that they'll lose it.

Location Info


Ajo Al's

5101 N. 16th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85014

Category: Restaurant > Cafe

Region: Central Phoenix

Ajo Al's

9393 N. 90th St., Ste. 121
Scottsdale, AZ 85258

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: North Scottsdale

Ajo Al's

6990 E. Shea Blvd., Ste. 126
Scottsdale, AZ 85254

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: North Scottsdale

Ajo Al's

7458 W. Bell Road
Glendale, AZ 85308

Category: Restaurant > Cafe

Region: Glendale

Until last month, Ajo Al's was a remarkable success story: a thriving family-owned business, a tight Roman Catholic clan that turned misfortune into entrepreneurial success.

Then came the charges from Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas.

On June 29, Thomas told an assembly of TV cameras and print reporters and radio microphones that the restaurant was extremely unsanitary. That an employee had been allowed to work, despite being ill, and spread a bacterial infection called shigellosis to unknowing diners. As part of a bold new policy, he was prosecuting — and the owners deserved to spend time at Tent City.

The Dains were devastated by the claims. Business has plummeted.

"We've lost $50,000 of business in the last week," says Karen Dains, a poised woman with shoulder-length dark hair. "We've laid off more than half our staff."

But though Thomas wrote the claims about shigellosis into his press release, and repeated them without hesitation to reporters, there appears to be absolutely no evidence to support them.

(Thomas's spokeswoman, Krystal Garza, did not return calls for comment.)

Instead, the county health workers who are investigating the case say that their investigation is still ongoing. They have not determined the source of the shigella bacteria. They certainly haven't identified any employees as being infected — the tests haven't even come back yet. They've tested food from the restaurant, but they have yet to link any of it to the bacteria in question.

David Ludwig, a manager for Maricopa County's environmental services department, says that the county is looking at the situation, and had identified problematic "risk factors" at the restaurant, like employees touching lemon slices with their bare hands and unclean microwave walls.

But Thomas' claims about a sick employee spreading shigella go too far, Ludwig says.

"I don't know that anyone knows that for a fact," he says. "Mr. Thomas — well, sometimes when you get people in front of a TV — you know how that is. I'll leave it at that."

The facts about a case like this are always complicated. But the quick summary goes something like this: After years of good evaluations and several "gold" awards from the county, Ajo Al's Phoenix location racked up some violations at its inspection last August. Typical restaurant stuff — dirty floors, an employee forgetting to wash his hands after removing his gloves — but nothing shocking.

In March, after an inspection yielded six similar violations, the restaurant was put on probation.

Then, in May, two families made complaints to Maricopa County within days of each other.

Four people had tested positive for shigella, a nasty strain of bacteria that leads to diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps.

Shigellosis isn't exactly unusual; the Centers for Disease Control says that 18,000 cases are reported every year. And despite the annoyance factor, which is huge, generally only the very old and very young require hospitalization.

In the May cases, county health officials compared detailed lists of what the families had eaten and where they'd been. They found one common venue: They'd dined at the Phoenix Ajo Al's within three days of each other.

Not a smoking gun, but definitely cause for concern.

So the county environmental services division visited the eatery May 23. They found eight violations. The can opener blade was dirty. An employee had put on gloves without washing his hands first. The black beans were too warm. And so on, along those lines.

Only one violation was a repeat from March, and none were particularly horrific offenses, but with the shigellosis lurking, they had to be taken seriously.

So county workers asked if employees had been ill. And, had they come to work while they were ill? Four said yes, although it's worth noting that none were involved in kitchen prep work. (The Dains say one was a hostess and three were wait staff. And ill doesn't necessarily mean ill with a stomach bug; one woman had an ear infection.)

The next day, the county returned with questionnaires for the employees. While the officials were there, they recorded nine repeat violations from the day before.

They also collected evidence: The sick employees were directed to give stool samples. County workers also took some food samples for testing.

The investigation continued for the next month, without any more complaints about shigella or about Ajo Al's, according to county records. Last month, when health inspectors visited again, they found that all but one of the problems had been fixed.

They gave Ajo Al's a "silver" award, the county's second-highest honor.

Under the old way of doing things, that might have been it. The shigella investigation would have continued, undoubtedly, with the stool samples analyzed and the food tested and a match sought between any bacteria detected. And Ajo Al's would have been subject to something called "stipulation," which basically means inspections every six weeks for the next six months.

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