Every Chipotle restaurant will close for several hours today, February 8, so that the company can hold an unprecedented all-hands meeting to discuss issues related to the chain's food safety crisis. Multiple outbreaks of food contamination of varying levels of severity have pummeled the chain in recent months.
Here's the announcement notice on my local Chiptole, explaining vaguely that "we're closed for lunch today to attend a meeting with all other Chipotle employees" without mentioning the bacteria that have caused the meeting.
Sales have been plummeting as the chain, which used to market itself to health-conscious consumers with bogus arguments about the virtues of avoiding GMO foods, is learning that local and organic produce is actually harder to manage safely than conventional food.
A recent Bloomberg cover story makes clear that to an extent, Chipotle has been a victim of its own success. The chain has been wildly popular for years, and has been opening stores — and hiring staff — at a rapid pace. This large-scale hiring combined with an obsessive focus on serving customers at a more rapid clip seems to have made it challenging to maintain best practices on a staffing level. At the same time, relentless expansion of the Chipotle supply chain has made it harder and harder to track the sources of contamination.
In the short term, the question for Chipotle is whether things like the the shutdown can succeed in stemming the problems. But in the longer term, the big question is whether Chipotle can ever regain its brand as a "better" sort of fast food.
When I went to Chipotle last week for the first time since the crisis started, for example, they had no lettuce. It wasn't the biggest deal in the world, and I think it reflects a welcome newfound commitment to food safety. But it also reflects the fact that the restaurant seemingly can't fully deliver on its vision of quick service dining featuring fresh ingredients in a way that is both consistent and safe.