Restaurant Reputation Management 101: Chipotle

Since it threw its hat into the fast-food casual ring and took the nation by storm, Chipotle has developed a large, loyal following that will drive for miles and wait in line for 20-30 minutes just to get their burrito bowl fix, or to grab a burrito to go. When you step into a Chipotle, it’s impossible to not feel the cool factor rush over you, thanks in part to the stylish décor, the sustainably-raised meats, and the young, hip, crowd spread throughout the establishment. As of mid-2015, research by the Reputation Institute found that consumers named Chipotle as one of the top ten food service companies based on a variety of factors. Also appearing on the list are chains like Panera Bread, Subway, Texas Roadhouse, and Cheesecake Factory.

Chipotle, along with Panera Bread, were some of the first national chains to make fast food healthier for the customer. Sure, there are options on the Chipotle menu that won’t exactly be fitting into a diet plan, but their focus on sustainably sourced ingredients was what drew many patrons away from the traditional fast food players and into Chipotle. Early in 2015, Chipotle made headlines when they stopped serving carnitas when a key pork supplier didn’t meet the animal welfare conditions that the company holds for all of its partners. The nation applauded Chipotle for taking a stand against big farming and demanding that the product they are offering to customers is as natural and untouched as can be.

Fast forward to November of 2015, and Chipotle is in the news once again, but this time the outlook doesn’t look as optimistic for the brand. In the beginning of the month, 43 Chipotle restaurants in the Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon area had to be closed down because customers who were eating there became ill. After further investigation, it was determined that the food poisoning and illnesses that the patrons were experiencing was caused by E.coli contamination at the Chipotle locations.

Chipotle, who was once viewed as the darling of the restaurant industry, received more media coverage than ever before, and its effects were felt throughout the brand. YouGov BrandIndex, a metric used to measure consumer perception, has downgraded Chipotle by 18 percent, to its lowest rating since 2007. In response, Chipotle founder Steve Ells published a full-page apology letter that was printed in Washington and Oregon state papers, and national newspapers, claiming that Chipotle views even the thought that someone would get sick at one of their restaurants as unacceptable, and that work is being done to make food as safe as it can be.

When looking at the damage that the Chipotle brand has sustained from what many would refer to as a very isolated incident, it shows the volatility that consumers can display towards a brand. Within 5 months, Chipotle went from one of the nation’s favorite brands, to currently where less than 2 out of 10 people say they would eat at Chipotle. As bad as things may seem, Chipotle is too large to fail, and will eventually bounce back to regain its place amongst the fast casual elite. But what if the same situation happened to a family-owned restaurant, or a small franchise with only a dozen locations? Would your restaurant be able to recover from the sharp decrease in customers walking through the door each night?

We will still have to wait and see what initiatives Chipotle puts into place to begin the difficult journey to rebuilding consumer trust, but if their success in rallying the younger generations around the brand’s message is any indication of what they are capable of, then we will be hearing more about Chipotle in the news soon, but for more better reasons than 2015 has provided.

Has your restaurant had a situation where consumer trust was damaged? How did you handle the situation? Leave us your story in the comments and your restaurant may be featured in a future edition of Restaurant Reputation Management 101.