You can’t deny it: Chipotle Mexican Grill had a really, really bad 2015. The recent foodborne illness outbreak that the chain was responsible for resulted in a huge drop in business, a huge drop in its stock value, and a huge drop in customer trust. But the folks who run the company know that a simple apology won’t cut it, and they’re bringing out the big guns in order to win back our trust — and our business.
Prior to last summer, Chipotle had been having a pretty good run, with stock prices and consumer confidence soaring thanks to the chain’s (supposedly) meticulous sourcing practices and emphasis on high-quality ingredients. But then norovirus and salmonella outbreaks in August began to put consumers on edge, and when word got out that 43 locations in Washington and Oregon had been closed down due to 19 customers in Washington and three in Portland being sickened with E. coli, it really hit the fan. The total of sickened customers in those two states quickly grew to 37, then to 52 as seven more states were affected. Then 143 Boston College students were sickened by norovirus after dining at an area Chipotle, the outbreak spread to two more states, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in California launched a criminal investigation into the matter.
When all was said and done, the CDC concluded that the chain’s E. coli outbreak sickened 60 people across 11 states (landing 22 in the hospital), and that it was unable to pinpoint exactly what the source was. Add to this the norovirus outbreak in Boston (as well as the August norovirus outbreak in Simi Valley, California that sickened 243 and salmonella outbreak in Minnesota and Wisconsin that sickened 64), and you have a grand total of 510 people sickened by Chipotle in what turned out to be a very, very bad year.
In the wake of the outbreaks, the chain’s stock price has plummeted to new lows, January sales were down 36 percent, a handful of lawsuits have been filed against the chain, and consumer trust in the chain is at an all-time low. We launched a survey last week asking readers how the outbreak has affected their Chipotle dining habits, and a full 46 percent of respondents (as of press time) claimed that it’s made them stop dining there completely (The survey is still open, you can take it here). If Chipotle’s business is going to rebound, it has to earn back our trust, and that’s no easy feat.
Chipotle built its reputation on serving high-quality food made with fresh ingredients, and the very fact that its entire M.O. has been “food with integrity” will make its road back even longer. The chain has worked very hard to build up our trust over the years, and this outbreak destroyed all that it’s worked so hard for. It’s very hard for a brand to restore trust with customers who’ve been betrayed, and Chipotle’s primary focus right now is on restoring that trust by reassuring customers that its food is safe. Read on for 12 ways in which the chain is trying to earn back our trust.