Nelly Campos joined three of her friends for a meal at Café Mundo on March 22. After having some appetizers at a cocktail reception, she ordered a light meal of bruschetta topped with tomato, cheese and basil. She finished her meal with a portion of sugary pecan pie.
“I really liked it at the moment,” Campos said.
The following night Campos and her friends all experienced symptoms of food poisoning: vomiting, diarrhea, body aches and dehydration. One of the women, Francella Conejo, ended up in the hospital.
Two weeks later, the Health Ministry shuttered Café Mundo, citing unsanitary conditions. A health report released by the ministry remarked on various health code violations found on the morning of April 5.
Inspectors observed surfaces that were neither washed nor disinfected, cleaning solutions were placed near the liquors, uncooked meat settled next to vegetables in the kitchen. The restaurant was undergoing remodeling but no separation existed between the construction area and the kitchen. Dust coated the walls, floors and tables in the kitchen.
“The food was tasty,” Conejo said. “There’s no way we could’ve imagined the level of problems that existed [in the kitchen].”
The reports of food poisoning at Café Mundo seemed to occur over a three-week period beginning in mid-March. But the decision to close the popular San José restaurant in Barrio Otoya didn’t occur until early April. Instead Campos and others, with the help of social network Facebook, gathered the names of food poisoning victims at Café Mundo and encouraged them to create an uproar.
In the end, the Health Ministry received 25 to 35 “denuncias,” or complaints. Each complaint represented one member of a family or a dinner with friends or business gathering that had been affected by the restaurant’s food.
On March 31, Cristy Valdés had a friend post her criticism about Café Mundo on the Facebook page of Health Minister María Avila. Valdés began her message by saying, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry or whether to denounce Café Mundo or the Health Ministry.” She went on to explain that after the incident occurred, Valdés spent three days calling the Health Ministry trying to file a complaint. Once she explained what happened, Valdés said she was told that four denuncias weren’t enough to lead to an inspection. On Facebook though, the complaints found an audience.
Valdés learned from one commenter that another woman named Nelly Campos was putting together a list of those afflicted by a meal at Café Mundo. They worked together to find people who alleged food poisoning from an unsanitary meal. Valdés also continued to call Café Mundo, only to have the people working the phone deny that customers had called about any grievances with the food.
As Valdés built up her list, a member of the Health Ministry started noticing the outcry on Facebook over Café Mundo. Roberto Echeverría Cardenas, communications advisor at the Health Ministry, saw complaints on Facebook and would direct them to the ministry’s official page for “denuncias.” A person had to file the protest with the ministry for it to be officially recognized. Still, Cardenas credits social networking for bringing the clamor to a head.
“[Facebook] was very useful because we got to the people very fast,” Cardenas said. “And moved quickly toward fixing the health risk.”
At 12:59 a.m. on April 5, Valdés updated the Facebook note saying: “One of my friends called [Café Mundo] today, and they slammed the phone on her… Their attitude is terrible and I assure you they are scared and don’t know how to manage. But that is not the problem of those who were poisoned.”
Her instincts proved correct. The following morning health inspectors dropped by Café Mundo, saw numerous violations and shut down the prominent tourist dining spot.
The networking done by Valdés, Campos and others had compelled the government to take action.
“I found it very interesting that people were so aware of the social networks,” said Kevin Otárola, another patron who suffered food poisoning at Café Mundo and used Facebook to communicate with the ministry. Otárola posted a question about the restaurant on Avila’s Facebook page one evening, and the minister wasted no time responding the next morning.
Once the Health Ministry report came out on the closure, Valdés posted her final remark on the Facebook note: “I saw the news, the conditions of that place? I have no words.”
The restaurant always has been a favorite among visitors to the country and Ticos alike. It has praiseful write-ups in travel guides like Fodor’s and Frommer’s. On original Facebook note, Valdes even lamented having to make the posting: “Café Mundo has delicious food, personally I like it a lot and almost, almost it is free of smoke. The food poisoning is important to clarify.”
But this mark against the restaurant’s reputation continues to spread. At TripAdvisor.com, a travel review site with more than 20 million members, recent user reviews read like epitaphs.
“Café Mundo Poisoning” said one about a group of 15 co-workers. “Poisoned at Café Mundo” declared another about 9 friends who suffered food poisoning symptoms for three days after eating there. “Careful Toxic Food” wrote another that described the group who ate their as frequent customers.
Still, Echeverría pointed out that as soon as conditions are improved, and the Health Ministry approves of the changes, Café Mundo could begin serving patrons again.
Reached by phone Thursday, Café Mundo’s owner Diego Meléndez said the restaurant plans to reopen during the first week of May. He contradicted some of the claims made in the Health Ministry’s report, saying there was a plastic barrier separating the parts of the kitchen under construction. Although concerned, Meléndez said he decided to keep the restaurant open since only 0.04 percent of his customers were reporting an illness. And when Café Mundo finally did close, Meléndez said it was his decision after he invited a health administrator to investigate the problems.
The owner also cast doubt that his clients were actually sickened by food poisoning, adding that doctors told him there’s been a stomach flu epidemic in the country.
“I have not seen one (doctor’s) report that said that they got food poisoning,” Meléndez said.
When recalling her last meal at Café Mundo, Campos has nothing bad to say. She called the meal “perfect,” and never thought something was wrong with the food.
But when asked if she’ll return Café Mundo when it reopens, Campos paused:
“I don’t think so, to be honest.”