Chipotle is fighting for its survival as sales and the stock have fallen drastically after at least six E. coli, salmonella or norovirus infections tied to the restaurant chain have made diners ill across the country over the past six months. Their latest move for redemption – an announcement that they are closing all their stores on Feb. 8 for training to boost food safety – on the surface seems like a good idea to emphasize they are serious about safety, or are they hoping a few hours of training will encourage sales to return?
The announcement, while a positive move, raises the question “Why wait another three weeks?” Sales are suffering. If the timing is designed to allow them to develop new procedures, make supply chain changes or plan the meeting, it would seem they would be impelled to move quickly, especially with the company now under federal investigation for its food safety practices.
The restaurant chain’s woes started last summer, when 207 people, including 18 Chipotle employees, were sickened by a norovirus after eating at a restaurant in Simi Valley, Calif., and 64 other customers were sickened by salmonella in Minnesota in September. In another incident, the Mexican grill chain voluntarily closed 43 outlets in Oregon and Washington State after an outbreak. There were E. coli incidents tied to Chipotle stores that made 52 people in North Dakota, Oklahoma, Kansas and some other states ill in November. Then, in December, nearly 140 people, mainly Boston College students, got a norovirus from a sick employee after eating at the chain.
The outbreak of salmonella was linked to tomatoes they served and the norovirus came from sick workers. However, the company still has not indicated they know where the E. coli problem originated. At this point, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating the supply chain and food-handling practices at the fast-casual chain.
Even before they announced the plan to close stores and train staff at an investor conference this week, Chipotle began trying to encourage customers to return by countering the perception that its food may not be safe. Mid-December, the company ran full-page ads in 61 major newspapers in the U.S. with an apology from Chipotle co-CEO and Chairman Steve Ells. “The fact that anyone has become ill eating at Chipotle is completely unacceptable to me and I am deeply sorry,” he assured readers.
Additionally, the chain announced an “enhanced food safety program” and promised that its procedures would be “at the forefront of food safety protocols in the restaurant industry.” The company has indicated that it overhauled its food preparation processes with steps like washing then cutting lettuce before shipping; using boiling water to blanche onions and avocados; and cutting tomatoes and shredding cheese before ingredients get to the restaurants. However, some of these are steps a household cook would use, so it begs one to ask what were they doing before?
Ells told the investors some details about the plans for Feb. 8. He even reportedly said, ” It’s going to be a great rally.” However, closing stores to boost staff morale (and train them) will only go so far without sales and Chipotle rallying customers to try their food again.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
USA Today: Chipotle to close all stores on Feb. 8 for all-staff meeting on food safety
Adweek: All Chipotles Will Close for Hours-Long Safety Talk. Will It Help, or Taint the Brand Even More?
New York Times: Chipotle Is Subpoenaed in Criminal Inquiry Over Norovirus Outbreak
New York Times: Chipotle Will Close Stores for Food Safety Meetings After Outbreaks
Eater: Chipotle Sued Following Boston Norovirus Outbreak
Photo by Chris Potter, courtesy of StockMonkeys.com — Creative Commons license