I’m a huge fan of burritos and the whole fast-casual restaurant movement, so it pains me to write this, but Chipotle has a mess on its hands. Since last summer, more than 500 people in Boston and on the West Coast have been struck ill by E. coli, salmonella, or norovirus after eating at the once-darling chain. What’s worse is that the cause for each case has yet to be determined. The company closed all 43 of its restaurants in Oregon and Washington in early November to try to identify the source of the E. coli and sanitize the spaces. A criminal investigation has even been launched. Unsurprisingly, sales at Chipotle restaurants open for at least a year were down 14.6 percent during the fourth quarter of last year and the stock has slipped by about 35% or so. This is “PR Nightmare 101” territory.
PR analysts differ on how successful the Chipotle team has been at weathering the storm. Their plan appears to be a pretty classic response to this kind of disaster with a couple of twists.
Step 1: Apologize
Steve Ells, Chipotle’s founder and co-chief executive, went on the Today show on Dec. 10, apologized to everyone who’d fallen ill, and announced a comprehensive food-safety program that he said would far exceed industry norms. They also placed a full page ad in newspapers across the country with a letter from Ells. “The fact that anyone has become ill eating at Chipotle is completely unacceptable to me, and I am deeply sorry,” he wrote. “As a result, we are committed to becoming known as the leader in food safety, just as we are known for using the very best ingredients in a fast-food setting.”
This is a good example of a straightforward apology that doesn’t shirk responsibility or try to shift blame. For many, it was seen as too little too late, but nonetheless, it is an important stop on the road to recovery.
Step 2: Make Changes and Talk About Them
Customers may be willing to forgive you after an apology, but they’ll only eat your burritos if they believe the problem is solved. Chipotle is taking major steps to solve the problem, but that is complicated by the fact that they can’t say exactly what the problem is. In late October, Chipotle hired Mansour Samadpour, head of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group in Seattle, to put together a more aggressive food-safety plan, which they hope will bring the risk of contamination to near zero. Changes will be implemented at every step of Chipotle’s system. In terms of PR, Chipotle has plans to share the story of what happened and what’s been done to correct the problem with its most loyal fans.
In what we view as a somewhat questionable decision, Chipotle has also highly publicized the fact that all of its stores will close on February 8th for a company meeting and food safety lesson. Unfortunately, many stories led with the headline, “Chipotle Closing All Its Locations,” making the closure sound permanent. As a PR pro, I wonder why the announcement and the closure are so far apart, ensuring that the story will once again make headlines in a few weeks. As a customer, I wonder what will be going on between now and the 7th.
The brand should also be carefully monitoring the media landscape and targeting press that are influencing the crisis conversations to better inform stakeholders. We created an interactive press coverage report to get more insight.
Step 3: Rebuild Trust (and Wait)
Perhaps the best news for Chipotle is that consumers have short attention spans. Tylenol, Jack-in-The-Box, BP and many other brands have survived similar scandals. If Chipotle can keep its operations clean over a period of time, the lines will likely begin to form again. In the meantime, the chain must begin to reintroduce itself to customers, yet stay true to the brand. Promotional events and discounts may be in order in the short term, but most experts advise against deep discounting or over the top marketing. As Ells said himself, “There’s nothing worse from a trust perspective. This is not the kind of problem that you market your way out of.”
Fresh food, especially uncooked vegetables, inherently caries some risk. There’s almost no chance that you’ll get E. coli from a McDonald’s French fry. With fresh produce, it’s harder to say. As Chipotle works to revamp their supply chain, retrain their team, and regain trust with customers, I’ll still be stopping in from time to time. If it’s a choice between deep fried and fresh, I’ll take my chances with the lettuce.