When a restaurant chain priding itself on fresh, locally-sourced and made-to-order finds itself in trouble because of sickened customers, a hard look at everything in the system is necessary. That’s Chipotle Mexican Grill’s position today, after e-Coli and other toxic outbreaks in stores across the country.
Maybe, company officials seem to have concluded, ‘all fresh’ can be ‘too fresh’, to a point where heavy reliance on young, inexperienced workers, people not used to following strict protocols (if they even understand what ‘protocols’ means!) can be poisonous to not only people but also to stock prices and profits. And, of course, customer counts.
Having suffered norovirus outbreaks in several states and eColi incidents in more, causing harm to more than 500 people, facing a grand jury subpoena in California and indications that both the Justice Department and the FDA may be considering bringing criminal charges against the company, Chipotle officials have good reason to fear life-threatening damage to the company’s reputation among a waning client base.
(A popular food industry blogger who’s reported several times on Chipotle’s troubles says he has repeatedly advised his adult children to not patronize the chain’s outlets until its problems are solved – as he has himself done. That reporter reaches a sizable number of people within the food-selling community, and his words, based on some thirty years of experience as a food trade journalist, are taken seriously – so one may assume his familial advice to choose somewhere else to spend your eating-out dollars will, and probably already has, negatively impact Chipotle’s customer count and its profits.)
What’s gone wrong? How, so quickly, did a company that, as qsrmagazine.com put it, “took 22 years to transform itself from a burrito stand to a $23 billion brand” find that something in its core business plan – to be the freshest of the fresh, the most locally sourced it’s possible to be, and have flexible offerings at reasonable price points – is letting it down?
Amazingly, after close analyses of systems, equipment and food sources, the company has, to date (Jan. 23), been unable to what caused either of the two types of outbreaks (eColi and norovirus) it’s suffered.
Nevertheless, Chipotle has created and implemented an “enhanced food safety program [that] is the product of a comprehensive reassessment of its food safety practices conducted with industry leading experts that included a farm-to-fork assessment of each ingredient Chipotle uses with an eye toward establishing the highest standards for safety,” a Jan. 19 press release stated.
That release said the new program’s many components include:
- High-resolution DNA-based testing of many ingredients designed to ensure the quality and safety of ingredients before they are shipped to restaurants — a testing program that far exceeds requirements of state and federal regulatory agencies, as well as industry standards.
- Changes to food prep and food handling practices, including washing and cutting of some produce items (such as tomatoes and romaine lettuce) and shredding cheese in central kitchens, blanching of some produce items (including avocados, onions and limes) in its restaurants, and new protocols for marinating chicken and steak.
- Enhanced internal training to ensure that all employees thoroughly understand the company’s high standards for food safety and food handling.
- Paid sick leave helping to ensure that ill employees have no incentive to work while ill.
Beyond that – way beyond that – the company will broadcast a company-wide meeting between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on February 8 “to thank employees for their extraordinary work implementing Chipotle’s comprehensive new food safety program in their restaurants, as well as outlining for all employees the steps that have been taken outside the restaurants to make Chipotle ingredients safer than ever.”
The release added that, at that meeting, “the company will also share information as to what may have caused some customers to become ill in 2015.”
‘May’ being the operative word there: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still is looking into potential causes, and had, as of last week, come to no conclusions.
While it is fully understandable that Chipotle wants to reassure the public, staff and investors that being-implemented changes will  result in the rehiring of staff of 43 Washington and Oregon restaurants closed last year because of the health issues  attract aspiring eaters back and  boost sales enough to at least partially recover from the 25% share price loss since last October, the company has its work cut out for it.