I admit, I jumped on the Chipotle band-wagon. But I was an early adopter, unlike most beanie wearing, long-board riding, college students. Mexican food has always been my personal cuisine of choice so when Qdoba and Chipotle, the quick serve Mexican kings started gaining popularity, I was all for it. Fast forward to today where there is a Mexican restaurant on campus at Grand Valley. The industry is moving fast as people are yearning for fresh food at a low price. Of course, serving the freshest ingredients at an affordable price, and handling all that food responsibly is a tall order. And a few months ago, Chipotle found that out the hard way.
The E. Coli outbreak at six Chipotle restaurants in the Pacific northwest forced the closure of forty-three stores in late 2015 (Ferdman). The exact cause of the outbreak is unknown as the source is long gone by now, but it is thought to be related to mishandling of poultry and a sick employee in one store (Ferdman). Ever since its inception twenty years ago, Chipotle has taken pride in serving responsibly raised ingredients without GMOs. As our food culture changes and people look for safe food that is nutritious and delicious, the reputation of the brand is a key factor in our food choice decision. The customer builds trust with a brand that they will be served high quality food. Especially since Chipotle uses fresh ingredients, the difficulty to keep that promise is difficult but all the more necessary. Moreover, it is even more difficult for Chipotle to recover from this incident because they promised that their food was so responsibly handled.
After the reports began to roll in linking Chipotle food to foodborne illnesses across the country, the response from the company was both good and bad. The company’s Co-CEO, Steve Ells made a public apology and promise on the Today Show that they are putting a plan in place to raise safety standards and are working to make their restaurants the “safest place to eat” (Ferdman). However, their presence on social media during the crisis was all but impressive and chose to promote their Halloween-themed “Boo-rito” over providing updates on the health scare (Jennings). That is where their target market is, buried deep in their Twitter feeds. Those who use social media are also those who eat their food and the ones deciding to go elsewhere for lunch because they heard some rumblings about Chipotle being infected. The worst thing Chipotle could have done in this situation is to be silent while their company was being dragged through the mud and the front page of Google news was plastered with negative stories about their brand. So, as the events unfolded, they could’ve done a whole lot better, but afterwards, they seemed to make good with the people.
“…openness is what customers today expect and demand from brands,” says Maggie O’Neil, the director of a public relations firm in New York City (Williams). Customers are more willing to come back and spend money if a company is just open and honest about a situation. That is what Chipotle did right. The CEO even, publically apologized and explained what they are doing to ensure something like this does not happen again like sanitizing restaurants and back kitchens, hiring food safety consultants, and putting more stringent food prep policies in place (Ferdman). People will vote with their wallets and they vote for brands they can trust and brands that care about their money, their family, and their health. It’s as simple as that. Chipotle did good here.
Going forward, Chipotle has a steep mountain to climb. They’ve been trusted with millions of stomachs over the past twenty years and getting those hungry people back in their restaurants, eating their food after a setback like this will be difficult. But they’ve proven that they are equipped to handle a crisis like this and now know what brand recovery will take. As long as they keep the safety of the customers first and stay open about their policies, the customers will return and the lunch lines will lengthen.
This Chipotle case is one to learn from for all new companies who are trying to appease the masses. Only so many promises can be made that can be realistically kept. They fell short of expectations but are on their way back to being the “safest food in the world.” Now all they need to do is make guac free! But, who am I kidding, it’s worth paying for.
Ferdman, R. A., Bhattarai, A. (2015, December 9) There’s a crisis at Chipotle. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/09/chipotle-food-outbreak-ecoli-reputation/
Jennings, L. (2015). Experts unimpreslcsed with chipotle’s crisis management. Nation’s Restaurant News, Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.gvsu.edu/docview/1747539138?accountid=39473
Williams, G. (2015, November 4) Chipotle’s E. Coli Crisis: P.R. Experts Say It’s Handling It Right. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/geoffwilliams/2015/11/04/can-chipotle-survive-its-e-coli-crisis-pr-experts-seem-to-think-so-and-offer-advice/3/#16180a4c53b8