I think we have all seen the news over the past few months of hundreds of people getting sick from eating at Chipotle in nine states across the country. Its a sad, and scary situation which many people are understandably staying away from the restaurant in the near term. The one time Wall St. darling has now lost over 35% of its market value over the last six months since the crisis began. People can die from E. coli, luckily that hasn’t happened yet in this case, but food borne illnesses are a massive deterrent from getting people in the door to your restaurant, so where does Chipotle go from here?
Chipotle was a first mover and was founded on the idea of a place where you could go to find quality, fresh, and locally sourced food. We have all heard the horrific stories about the ‘pink slime‘ being served at McDonalds and then people eating yoga mats at Subway. Chipotle was looked at as an alternative to those two options. A place where someone could go for food that was fresh, from free range animals. The public loved this opportunity and the franchise took off. You couldn’t drive by a Chipotle around lunch and not see the line going out the door.
The last thing we want to do is make light of a situation where people are getting sick, that shouldn’t take place. However, I’m not convinced that we can have it both ways. Chipotle’s food is not ‘building’ their food in a giant factory as so many other fast food chains are, and therefore they are opening themselves up to a much larger chance of contamination from their multitude of suppliers. The whole situation reminds me of the old Joni Mitchell song that was later covered by the Counting Crows titled “Big Yellow Taxi”. In the song there is the lyric about reducing pesticides, ‘Give me the spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees.’
Chipotle has mostly stayed mum on the situation, which is a mistake. They have built a mammoth brand on the simple premise of providing consumers with fresh locally sourced food. Now is the time to take advantage of that. They could double down on that marketing message. They could go as far as lining the walls of each location showing where each ingredient came from. The bottom line is that they should take ownership of what took place, and pledge to provide increased training to each and every one of their food suppliers. They should vow to continue to provide the freshest food possible, but also make it much safer.
Personally, I hope Chipotle weathers the storm that is out there right now. It would be a shame if restaurants that are trying to bring cleaner and healthier food to the market are shunned due to this bacteria outbreak. It would set a terrible precedent for our commercial food consumption in this country. Whether you like the restaurant or not, Chipotle was a pioneer in offering this type of food in a semi fast food environment, and I sincerely hope they clean up their processes and continue to offer good food at a low price and win back the trust of the public.
Stop reaching over the ‘sneeze guard’ to point out what you want on your burrito, and that means you too President Obama!