Chipotle Cools after E. Coli

chipotleIt grieves me to say that Mexican fast-food chain, Chipotle, has recently been linked to outbreaks of E. Coli across the country and a norovirus outbreak in California that happened last August. Since the very first time my taste buds encountered Chipotle, it has been one of my favorite restaurants. Previous to the incidents, the Mexican restaurant chain maintained a pristine public perception, but it is now undergoing investigation by a grand jury for the norovirus outbreak and was served a subpoena in December. Not at all surprisingly, this has severely damaged Chipotle’s sales and the downward trend is expected to continue.

Sadly, these things do happen from time to time. Taco Bell spawned a similar outbreak of E. Coli back in 2006. If history serves as a guide, Chipotle might expect their plunge to continue for at least a year or more, like Taco Bell’s which lasted for five quarters. Fortunately for the chain formerly beloved by so many, Taco Bell and other restaurants that suffered similar dives in the past have all typically made full recoveries, though it often took a couple of years.

For Chipotle, these outbreaks could potentially prove to be damning in ways that Taco Bell’s E. Coli outbreak was not. The company has poured all of its marketing efforts into building a reputation as a fast-food restaurant committed to using better ingredients and making its food fresh. These recent incidents seem to fly completely in the face of Chipotle’s core values. This could make it that much more difficult to recover from this breach of the trust the company has created, trying to regain fans who may now feel betrayed. It takes years to build a strong public image, but just days to tear it down.

Taco Bell, Jack in the Box and McDonald’s have all dealt with outbreaks, so it’s nothing new. Even the FDA admits that ‘no system is foolproof’. Right now, Blue Bell is undergoing investigation for a listeria outbreak. Still, each time it happens, people become distrustful and sales drop dramatically as a response. This highlights how important it is to be responsible, both as a consumer and as a business.

Consumers often behave in reactionary ways when responding to these types of events. Being wary of products that have the potential to cause serious illness is recommended, but before boycotting a restaurant for life, it’s worth considering their response in the wake of an outbreak. The truth is that no matter how trustworthy a restaurant may be, mistakes can be made. While it shouldn’t excuse blame, it is possible that outbreaks are the result of honest mistakes or bad actors and not due to general sloppiness shady business practices. In fact, it’s probably more likely that fresh unmodified produce will be more prone to carrying diseases. If the restaurant can reasonably show that they assume responsibility for the issue and are taking the necessary steps to make amends and to prevent further issues, they might still be worth your business in the future.

On the other hand, restaurants should realize that outbreaks are a dangerous and inherent risk in the food industry and that they should take special care to avoid them. In the case of a restaurant like Chipotle, which built its reputation on the integrity of its product, these kinds of precautions are paramount. For some people, the kind of misstep Chipotle has made might be absolutely unacceptable, and I can’t really blame them for feeling that way.

Though I am greatly disappointed by what happened, I still enjoy Chipotle’s food and prefer it to comparable restaurants. When Chipotle says that they will be doubling down on safety, I’m inclined to trust that they are probably telling the truth. They have been nothing but compliant with the investigation and have even acknowledged the problem publicly, taken responsibility on their own website and outlined plans for improving the safety of their restaurants.

If you’re considering boycotting Chipotle, I would counter by suggesting you should consider that now is probably the safest time to eat there, as I’m sure they will be walking on eggshells until they can recover, if they can recover from this disaster. I’m sure that Chipotle now realizes how critical the public image – built up over several years – has been to their success, and they will work harder than ever to reinforce it. For my part, I will probably continue eating there, but it’s up to each individual to decide whether Chipotle is a company worth supporting after the recent events. Whichever side you take, it’s important to be informed, to investigate, and to make responsible decisions.