January is the month we make promises to ourselves: to eat healthier, drink less, get more exercise, be kinder and generally improve ourselves. Burrito emporium Chipotle is doing the same.
After an outbreak of E. coli and norovirus in its restaurants that sickened hundreds over the holiday season, which resulted in a federal grand jury subpoena as part of an FDA Office of Criminal Investigation’s inquiry, the restaurant announced a provocative move to clean up (literally) its act and regain Americans’ confidence.
According to a company spokesman, on February 8, Chipotle will close all of its North American stores for a few hours in order “to thank our teams for all of their hard work, to discuss some of the changes we are making to enhance food safety, to talk about the restaurants’ role in all of that and to answer questions from employees.” And that’s not all, to lure customers back, the company is even bringing back its practice of giving away tacos and burrito bowls.
While free food is definitely a way to win back customers, the delay in closing its stores for an all-hands meeting has left some scratching their heads. Shuttering all of its nearly 2,000 locations is certainly meant to make people sit up and notice. But it begs the question why wait until next month? If this is so serious; if this is a matter of food safety (as the company states) and the health of paying customers, why not shut down tomorrow? Surely something as serious as bacterial contamination of the company’s burrito and taco ingredients demands swift action.
Company CEO Steve Ells has certainly signaled the company will be making changes. In an open letter to customers posted on the company website, Ells explained that the company has conducted a “farm-to-fork risk assessment” and “collaborated with pre-eminent food-safety experts to design a comprehensive food-safety program that dramatically reduces risk on our farms, throughout the supply chain and in our restaurants.”
Chipotle deserves credit for taking these outbreaks seriously, and for committing to make changes, but regaining consumer trust may require more. First, Chipotle needs to transform its business and marketing model and stop with the smug assertions that it “serves food with integrity.” Because, to put it bluntly, no one cares about integrity when they spent the holidays throwing up.
Chipotle has been a leader in working with food alarmists to spread misinformation about the food supply. The company brags about forgoing genetically modified ingredients (despite thousands of scientific studies demonstrating their safety), and using only locally sourced ingredients (which makes tracking the source of the bacteria more difficult), while making not-so-subtle jabs at American farmers and ranchers (check out the company’s wildly insulting “Scarecrow” short film for a taste).
The company implies it is superior from the “other guys” in the fast-food realm despite the fact that Chipotle’s popular menu items are as high in fat and calories as traditional fast-food restaurant offerings.
This unfounded snobbery overlooks that it’s one of these “other guys” that helped Chipotle become the billion-dollar company it is today. In 1998, McDonalds — arguably the most vilified fast-food restaurant on the planet — invested in Chipotle, which allowed the company to grow from 13 stores to more than 500 stores in seven years. Interestingly, Chipotle’s website doesn’t mention McDonalds’ largess (a search of the word “McDonalds” on the company website resulted in a message that reads: “OOOOOPS! No results match your search). Oops indeed.
It makes sense that Chipotle doesn’t want to brag about its profitable alliance with the very type of restaurant it scorns. But it reveals something about the culture of Chipotle — a company run by food snobs who willingly enjoy the benefits of the sugar daddy they hate.
For too long Chipotle has been distracted from what any restaurant’s true mission should be: to provide safe, bacteria-free and delicious food to paying customers. Perhaps these closures will usher in a new era of honesty and responsibility at Chipotle but until the company reconsiders its culture of food snobbery and ends its practice of scaring its customer base with misinformation about food and farming practices, it’s likely little will change.