PORTLAND, Maine — As Chipotle restaurants near a one-day shutdown Feb. 8 to recover from a widespread food contamination issue, the paper bowls it buys from Waterville manufacturer Huhtamaki have been piling up.
The drop in demand has meant layoffs for 25 to 30 employees that United Steelworkers union representative Duane Lugdon said he expects to last less than eight weeks.
“Obviously, Chipotle has lost some of its patronage and we think it’s a temporary thing,” Lugdon said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “We don’t see this lasting longer than perhaps four to six weeks — eight weeks at the most — and the folks will be recalled to begin making the Chipotle products again.”
Chipotle has seen sales slump after an E. coli outbreak sickened more than 50 people in nine states in October and November 2015, leading to a grand jury subpoena and federal investigation led by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Reuters reported.
Wess Hudelson, spokesman for Huhtamaki, said that the employees were laid off after Christmas due to a drop in demand for the Chipotle burrito bowls. The cuts come after a year of hiring, he said, with the company having added about 100 employees before the temporary layoffs.
Hudelson said it’s difficult to predict when the company will bring back those employees, “but again, we’re talking about Chipotle, not some mom and pop shop on the corner, and I think they’re strong and will bounce back.”
Hudelson said the hiring in the last year was driven mostly by a new contract making compostable school trays for a consortium of some of the country’s largest school districts. At year’s end, the company had about 470 employees and has less than 450 now. Hudelson said that number has fluctuated as some employees have returned for a week or so during the temporary slowdown in demand from Chipotle.
Lugdon said employees have known for weeks that cuts were on the way as the company built up inventory of the Chipotle products, but he said individual employees have not yet received notice.
“It’s a devastating thing, but this is really not a permanent thing,” Lugdon said.
The Waterville plant’s business mostly comes from making Chinet paper plates. It makes burrito bowls for Chipotle in Waterville and another plant in Indiana, but Hudelson said the vast majority for the restaurant chain’s stores nationwide come from Maine.