Starting Fresh?

chipotleStarting out in 1993 as a simple burrito stand in Denver, Chipotle Mexican Grill now has more than 2,000 locations…and this year is facing perhaps its greatest challenges ever.

Plagued by controversy since the summer of 2015, with a half dozen outbreaks of E.coli and norovirus being reported at locations across the country, the restaurant chain was also subpoenaed as part of a federal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and the FDA. According to a USA Today article, the company will have lost three years of earnings between fiscal year 2014 and fiscal year 2017 because of multiple food-related illness outbreaks.

While Chipotle’s legal team certainly has their hands full, their public relations team may have the bigger challenge. In an attempt to win back the trust of customers this year, the message of fresh food made from locally sourced ingredients – a longstanding hallmark of their menu – will now have to be combined with one of food safety.

In an interview with the New York Times, Chipotle Public Relations Director Chris Arnold said that for starters, a comprehensive review of food safety practices was conducted, leading to a newly stringent food safety plan.

But how best to translate reformative moves into diners passing through the restaurants’ doors?

Greet the Elephant in the Room.  According to company executives, marketing efforts toward “inviting customers back” will reference food safety in an indirect but creative manner. This tact aims to avoid brushing off the significant scandal while reassuring customers, “we’re on it.”

Free Stuff.  Even wary customers can perk up at the idea of a freebie. Individual stores have always been given an allotment of free product to give away toward promotional efforts. In February, that amount doubled, with distribution details left to the discretion of each manager.

Close Doors Before Opening Them.  Literally. On February 8th, all Chipotle stores closed for several hours so that company executives could address employees about the status of the outbreaks and how they will be working to prevent foodborne infections from recurring.

Whether these tactics pay off remains to be seen. Large restaurant chains have been known to successfully ride out such crises in the past, as long as the matter is handled quickly and completely. Chipotle seems to be on the right track, but ultimately their fate rests in the hands of their customers.

Crisis PR is no joke. When a company’s reputation and future are on the line, it is critical to have the best representation guiding external communications. If you’d like to talk about how our team can back you on that front, we’re ready. Give us a call at (203) 762-8833. We’re ready to help!


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