Since July of last year, Chipotle has been hit hard over and over again when E. coli and other norovirus breakouts were linked back to the restaurant chain. Nearly 500 people across 10 states across were sickened by Chipotle’s food, leading to a huge collapse in sales and market share. It experienced a 30% drop in sales in December of 2015, followed by at 36% drop in February. By March, it was up to 27% but had to close another restaurant due to illness.
Chipotle has long stood by its “Food with Integrity” motto, but the never-ending outbreaks have left its publics questioning the authenticity of this statement. Its non-GMO standards and other health-conscious initiatives gave the chain its large dedicated fanbase. The Chipotle executives were already aware that using fresh ingredients left a higher risk of food-borne illnesses, but the desire to have the freshest food available won out.
Even in the face of serious issues, Chipotle has done a lot of things correctly. While there is always room for improvement, here are a few things Chipotle did right over the past months:
1) Showing an overabundance of caution
When 19 cases of illnesses caused by bacteria were linked back to six restaurants in the in the Seattle and Portland areas, Chipotle made the decision to close 43 restaurants. The restaurant chain showed it cared about keeping the customers safety as the top priority by closing all restaurants in the area rather than just the ones linked back to the cases.
2) Adjusting the food preparation process
Knowing its customers were wary about contamination, Chipotle developed a new preparation plan of its food ingredients to lower the risk of food-borne illnesses. Some of these preparation changes include blanching onions in boiling water, marinating chicken in plastic bags instead of bowls, and cheese will arrive to restaurants pre-shredded. Chipotle’s Communication Director Chris Arnold claims the new regulations “will reduce the risk of contamination to a level near zero.”
3) Closing all restaurants for a food safety meeting
On February 8th, Chipotle closed all restaurants for a few hours to hold a staff meeting about food safety. With over 1,900 restaurants, this was a huge move, but allowed the company to thank their employees, answer questions, and stress the importance of food safety. Even better, Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells was in charge of the meeting, showing the company cares about its employees.
4) Starting the recovery process with freebies
Many Chipotle restaurants are still noticeably less crowded then a year ago, but Chipotle is doing its best to start the recovery process and gets its fanbase invested once more. On the day stores were closed, Chipotle offered a free downloadable ‘rain check’ free entree coupon for when stores were opened again. This coupon had 5.3 million attempted downloads, and shortly after, Chipotle started mailing coupons for a free entree. There are already 6-10 million in circulation. The company’s most recent promotion came out in the form of an online game called Guac Hunter. In partnership with Advocados from Mexico, Chipotle created an online “digital photo hunt” where players can win free chips and guac from Chipotle. This idea emerged from the popularity of the guacamole feature in stores, which costs extra to add to a meal.
Despite being faced with a huge crisis, Chipotle handled the situation with transparency, honesty, and consideration. Although the company is still making up for its drop in sales, it seems to be on a good, upward path to recovery. Freebies certainly don’t hurt.