In 2017, a Colorado restaurant’s tainted pork sliders poisoned dozens of attendees at a local rodeo, who came down with symptoms ranging from nausea to bloody diarrhea. Now the restaurant’s proprietor is running for Congress on her small-business-owner credentials.
Lauren Boebert, who bested a five-term Republican incumbent in an upset primary win last week, has drawn national attention for her support for the outlandish, entirely contrived “QAnon” conspiracy theory. But her pitch to voters has focused more on her business experience in Rifle, Colorado.
“She is the founder, owner, and operator of Shooters Grill, a restaurant that earned national notoriety for staff that proudly open carry as they serve their customers,” Boebert’s campaign website proudly states. Shooters has earned attention over the years due to its wait staff, who carry holstered sidearms as they serve customers.
Boebert’s restaurant recently earned even more notoriety—and support from critics of state efforts to control the novel coronavirus outbreak. Shooters Grill lost its food service license in May after it defied a state-mandated closure of indoor restaurant services.
“They are open again after being shut down by the ‘hoax’ Covid pandemic,” a recent Yelp reviewer reported. “I am from Texas but donated money to the owner's political campaign. Wish I could vote for her.”
Boebert’s defiance of the state order wasn’t the first time her restaurants, Shooters Grill and the now-shuttered Smokehouse 1776, wound up in the crosshairs of local health authorities. Records from the Garfield County department of public health show that they faulted Boebert’s establishments for literally—though not deliberately—poisoning dozens of customers.
The mass food poisoning incident was traced to the Rifle Rodeo, which took place on June 5, 2017, in an indoor arena at the Garfield County fairgrounds. At about 10 a.m. the morning after the event, the county’s public health office started getting calls from people who had attended and had come down with some serious symptoms.
The county health office began investigating, and quickly discovered that the event had been catered by “an unlicensed temporary retail food establishment associated with Shooters Grill.” The meat served there “was smoked at Smokehouse 1776, a retail food establishment located in downtown Rifle, Colorado across the street from Shooters Grill and owned by the same person.”
The main culprit was found to be the pork sliders, and those who ate them reported symptoms including bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, and chills. Health authorities determined that the tainted pork was caused by “improper food safety practices of the unlicensed food providers.”
Authorities suspected the food had not been stored at proper temperatures. When health inspectors visited Smokehouse 1776 a couple days after the rodeo, they found it had no “cold holding” or “hot holding” procedures to maintain safe food temperatures prior to service. They also found that the restaurant “does not maintain temperature logs so there was no way of showing that food was kept at proper temperatures,” and reported “bare hand contact with ready to eat foods, no handwashing station, [and] no barrier protection from insects.”
A Boebert campaign spokesperson told The Daily Beast that Smokehouse 1776 “did not receive a fine or have any other type of disciplinary action” related to the rodeo or accompanying inspection, and is no longer in business. The spokesperson also cast doubt on county health officials’ findings.
“Staff was told of several individuals who claimed to experience similar symptoms but say they did not consume food at the rodeo,” the spokesperson said. (According to the public health department’s report, “100% of those interviewed with diarrhea ate pork sliders.”)
While Boebert’s spokesperson stressed the lack of a monetary penalty, financial disclosure information that the candidate filed with House ethics officials in January indicates that both Shooters and Smokehouse were financial drains on Boebert personally.
Boebert’s disclosure filing says she personally lost nearly a quarter of a million dollars on the two restaurants in 2018. It doesn’t list any financial information for the two restaurants for 2019, even though the required reporting period that filing covered nearly all of last year as well. Her campaign said the filing “is being reviewed to make sure it is in full compliance.”
The filing does contain additional information suggesting financial troubles in Boebert’s restaurant business. She reported liabilities in 2018 totalling between $25,000 and $65,000 itemized as “accounts payable” for Shooters Grill and Smokehouse 1776. She also reported owing between $10,000 and $15,000 listed as “Payroll Shooters.”
Asked whether the latter item indicated that employees of the restaurant were owed wages, Boebert’s campaign spokesperson said, “All Shooters employees are paid in full. The restaurant does not have any past due liabilities.”