Cheering Chipotle

I have a question for you this Foodie Friday. Are you paying attention to what’s going on with Chipotle? You should be because I believe the events of the last few months will be studied for years as a terrific example of how to handle what really could have been a crisis that threatened the chain’s entire existence. Lucky us: we get to watch it unfold in real-time!

Español: Restaurant Chipottle Mexican Grill in...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In case you’re not aware, there was an E. coli outbreak at Chipotle stores in the Pacific Northwest. The outbreak widened to include nine states in which 53 people reported being ill. On the other coast, more than 140 people became sick with norovirus in the Boston area after eating at a Chipotle. Most restaurants take a hit when a single person becomes sick because inevitably that person tells the world via social media. A couple of hundred illnesses, the involvement of the CDC, and the mandatory shutting down of restaurants is well beyond your basic bad day at the office.

The good news is that zero customers have reported getting sick from E. Coli since late November and the crisis seems to have abated. What’s been fascinating to watch is how Chipotle management has been handling this. The stock tanked, understandably. Did they deny anything was wrong or blame suppliers? Nope. They have been incredibly transparent and proactive. As one article reported:

The first step of Chipotle’s food safety plan is to analyze every ingredient and all of the restaurant procedures in a “farm-to-fork” risk assessment. High-resolution sampling and new sanitation protocols will prevent contaminants such as E. coli from entering the restaurants. Chipotle is sampling all of its ingredients using DNA-based tests to ensure the quality of its ingredients.

They are also shutting down the entire chain in February so that management can tell employees everything they know about the E. coli outbreak and what they’re doing to ensure it doesn’t recur. They’ll review food safety as procedures as well. And if that’s not enough, they’ll be giving away free food.

This is a chain that built up an enormous amount of goodwill among its customers through its food. They position themselves as using responsibly farmed ingredients and as a healthy, inexpensive alternative to fast food. Any business can learn why keeping customers happy and making deposits in the goodwill checkbook is so critical as you see how customers are reacting during this crisis. They know there has been a problem but the goodwill will get them back in the stores once the crisis has passed.  Another key point has been to recapture consumer trust by being as transparent as this management team has been.  Finally, being proactive and fixing things is way better than just “letting the crisis pass”.

I’ll be back at Chipotle.  You?

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