On Monday, Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill temporarily shut down its 2,000+ locations for a few hours to conduct a virtual town hall meeting to discuss food safety with employees.
Over a live video stream, Chipotle president Steve Ells reassured his 50,000 staffers that business would improve again. As part of the meeting, Chipotle announced plans to launch a $10 million program aimed at helping the company’s farm suppliers to pay for new food safety measures. The farms will be required to undergo more stringent testing. The benefit with this program, according to Ells, is that the ingredients that farmers distribute will be safer for all companies they sell to, not just Chipotle.
Since last summer, Chipotle has experienced a number of food safety issues all linked to either E. coli, norovirus or Salmonella. These events spawned more than 500 reports of customer illness, most of them due to norovirus outbreaks.
Although no official origin of the norovirus outbreak has been determined, Chipotle did give some insight as to what they believe caused the bacterial contamination in its Simi Valley, CA and Boston locations--sick restaurant employees. To combat this, Chipotle has introduced a paid sick leave program to encourage ill workers to stay home. Employees are also expected to report fellow coworkers who come to work sick.
A Salmonella outbreak in Minnesota and Wisconsin that sicked 60 people is said to have been traced back to diced tomatoes. Chipotle is now washing, slicing and testing tomatoes in a central location, then shipping them out in sealed bags to each restaurant location. The company has also made a change with its lemon wedges in select locations. Formerly kept in a bin near drink machines for consumers to access themselves, the citrus fruit is now only available behind the kitchen counter at some stores.
The cause of the E. coli outbreak that sickened 60 customers in 14 states remains unknown. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially closed their investigation last week.
To lure customers back in, Chipotle has launched a massive marketing campaign estimated to cost around $50 million. This will not only include free food offers, but continuous steps in communicating the company’s improved food safety practices going forward.