I apologize to whomever else did Chipotle, as I had already had this post written before I saw someone else used the same company.
I was a bit of a late bloomer with the whole Chipotle fad. For months, my high school friends had been telling me about a fast-food type Mexican restaurant that had just opened next to our high school. Initially, the thought of “fast-food Mexican” raised images of Taco Bell and other similar places I wasn’t too fond of. Eventually, however, I decided that I would try Chipotle to see what all the hype was about. Upon my first visit to Chipotle, I was instantly struck by the fact that their ingredients were fresher and much more delicious than other fast Mexican restaurants.
Indeed, it is this aspect of Chipotle that seems to be the foundation of their success–commitment to “Food with Integrity.” This essentially means that Chipotle focuses on the local sourcing of its ingredients, non-GMO ingredients, vegetables grown in healthy soil, pigs allowed to freely roam, etc. Yet, recently, all of this seems to have changed as Chipotle is facing serious issues due to an E. Coli outbreak in addition to a number of norovirus cases. One quote in an article about Chipotle in a recent edition of BusinessWeek reads, “it strikes deeper at their brand, because so much of their story is based on the quality of their ingredients.” This really speaks to the core issue with Chipotle’s recent health concerns—the primary reasons that the outbreaks happened were in large part due to many of their practices that differentiate them. The source of the outbreaks has been identified as occurring somewhere within Chipotle’s supply chain, specially the source of its ingredients. While Chipotle may have been focusing on food that comes from local farms, this sort of strategy creates serious risks with regard to food safety and similar microbial concerns. Small, local suppliers often times do not have the resources necessary to maintain the most recent food safety specifications. Furthermore, Chipotle differentiates itself from other fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s by cooking many of its products in house, such as dicing tomatoes and preparing the cilantro (what many people don’t know is Chipotle has large distribution centers and infrastructure similar to McDonalds). While this certainly contributes to the freshness, it also creates serious risks for food contamination. When most Chipotle workers are younger and being paid minimum wage, how cognizant are they of food safety? After all, they know they’re not the ones eating it…
Further criticisms of Chipotle suggest that it’s really just a big marketing scheme. Some of the numbers are shocking. While many, including myself, assumed that the majority of Chipotle’s ingredients are locally sourced, this only accounts for at most 10% of its produce. It seems as though every day Chipotle is becoming less associated with healthy and more associated with getting sick. In the past, Chipotle has been criticized for its “Scarecrow” marketing, which appeals to the sustainable and environmentally conscious consumer and contains a strong anti-factory-farm message. Critics of this marketing scheme argue it is manipulative in that it appeals to the consumers emotions concerning sustainability and animal welfare when in reality Chipotle’s primary focus is on profit maximization and selling more burritos. Other more extreme critics suggest “Indeed, no matter how it is farmed, meat is still energy intensive, it still poses serious health problems when consumed in American-level amounts, and it only gets to your plate by killing an animal.” So maybe Chipotle isn’t as healthy and sustainable as we once thought? Still, the company deserves some credit for shutting down restaurants and promising to improve its food safety standards to become an industry leader in this category.
Those who suffered form the E. coli and similar health outbreaks at Chipotle though they were being provided with “Food with Integrity.” They fell victim to Chipotle’s marketing. Clearly, these recent health issues have caused some serious trust issues between Chipotle and its consumers. Their stock fell almost 25% over the last few months. Can they recover? Chipotle needs to restore faith in its customers and investors if its hopes to regain its success, but I know many Chipotle customers to be incredibly loyal. Personally, I will always like Chipotle, yet will be hesitant to eat it on a consistent basis going forward. For me, those days were before the E. Coli outbreak.