Chipotle Takes Food Safety Tactics To Employees, Social Media

Chipotle Mexican Grill shut all its more than 2,000 outlets nationwide for four hours at lunchtime yesterday as co-CEOs Steve Ells and Monty Moran led a pep rally cum apologia from a studio in Denver, where the company is based, that was broadcast to about 50,000 employees at more than 400 theaters and conference centers across the country.

Chipotle “has no intention to curb its growth” and “will continue to open new locations,” according toFast Company’s Mark Sullivan, who filed live reports from a San Francisco movie theater as one of a couple of reporters allowed into a meeting. 

“‘People will come back,’ [Ells] said, urging employees to treat Chipotle patrons with more care than usual. ‘Our customers should never have to wonder whether the food is safe,’” Sullivan informs us.



And if they were “just dying to eat a Chipotle burrito [yesterday] for lunch, only to have [their] plans ruined by the company-wide shutdown,” all they had to do was “text the word ‘raincheck’ to 888-222” for an SMS coupon for a free burrito, reportsWired’s Davey Alba under the headline “Chipotle’s Big Comeback Plan Is Free Burritos.”  

The AP’s Candice Choi, who watched in Manhattan, writes that workers were told to come wearing their uniforms to two locations in Union Square and were paid for attending. “In a video, employees were told to watch for symptoms [in themselves] such as nausea, vomiting, explosive diarrhea, yellowing of the skin and eyes and dark urine,” Choi reports. And were instructed to take a sick day if they felt ill.

“Marketing experts applauded the company for its transparency about the meeting, but said the company would need to do a lot more to win back the trust of consumers,” writes the New York Times’ Stephanie Strom.

“It’s going to take significant meaningful action that goes beyond telling employees to be more careful and, unfortunately, some time before consumers start to believe it,” Allen Adamson, founder of marketing consultancy BrandSimple, tells Strom, citing Johnson & Johnson’s adept handling of the Tylenol crisis in the 1980s as the role model for handling a crisis that could erode consumer trust.

Liz Fuerst, a professor of public relations at Rutgers University in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, tells Maxwell Reil of that the move “was a ‘very good public relations message’ that followed a series of missteps in how the company handled the response.”

And, she said, there’s a lesson therein for everybody else in the age of viral reaction. 

“I think they were very hesitant to react to this. Companies have to be transparent. They have to react right away because social media is everywhere,” she said.

Including within the meeting, which was live tweeted.

“Deeply sorry that some people became ill after eating Chipotle. Committed to make sure it won't happen again,” one corporate tweet said as Ells “reiterated that the Centers for Disease Control said last week that two outbreaks tied to the chain appeared to be over,” Samantha Masunaga, Shan Li and James Rufus Koren report for the Los Angeles Times.

“At the Monday meeting, company executives also urged employees to take advantage of a new sick pay policy; some of the outbreaks, the company said were due to employees who worked despite being ill’,” they write.

Since the outbreaks of E. coli and other food-borne illnesses at several locations nationwide, Chipotle has “implemented a new food-safety program, that includes more rigorous testing, preparing some produce in central kitchens, blanching certain ingredients to kill germs, and changing its marinating techniques for steak and chicken,” Samantha Allen writes for The Daily Beast.

Ells also announced a $10 million initiative to help local farmers meet food safety standards that was streamed live on #Periscope.

“The approach of publicly shutting down for a chunk of a day proved effective for Starbucks back in 2008 when the coffee chain orchestrated the closing of 7,100 U.S. stores for a three-hour retraining session as it dealt with sluggish sales,” observes Kate Gibson for CBS Money Watch.

“It set the tone for how to deal with lost sales and a declining customer base,” Christopher Muller, a professor at Boston University's School of Hospitality, tells Gibson, who says he “does not believe the tactic will have the same positive effect for Chipotle.”

“As he put it: ‘Years from now, this will be case study in how not to manage a crisis.’”

At least initially. The proof will be in the burrito sales.

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