retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Two stories about Chipotle this morning indicate the severity of its brand issues.

The first is a big-picture piece in the Wall Street Journal, pointing out that "perception by consumers following an E. coli outbreak at some of its restaurants has dropped to a new low, according to data from YouGov BrandIndex," dropping 48 points in just the past few months.

The other story ran in several Fairfield County, Connecticut, papers, pointing out that two Darien-area Chipotles - one on the Boston Post Road, and one in a rest stop on I-95 - got "poor" ratings from the local health department.

The Post Road location was evaluated as follows: "Could not provide documentation of training — grill employee, kitchen manager training plan not completed; brown rice in the walk-in at 50 degrees from the previous day at 7 p.m. (per manager in charge) (rice was disposed of); thermometer missing in the low boy under the grill; keep Band Aid covered with a glove when working in the kitchen/cleaning/taking temperatures, etc.; observed spraying protein [meat] cutting boards but not sanitizing — how often are these completely sanitized?; only dipping items in the sanitizer — no contact time at four-bay sink; several bowls/utensils stored unclean on shelf; label bulk food items in bins; scoops handle stored in the food product; dry sweeping floors with open food at the line and meat cooking on the grill.”

The rest stop location got the following comments: "Three employees without complete documentation of training — one with partial [documentation] (grill employee) and two without any documented training on five modules (new employees); chicken coming off the line not temping [not at temperature of] 165 or higher (put back on grill and reheated to 174); unclean floors in walk-in [cooler] — under shelving.”
KC's View:
I point out the two Darien locations because they are each with two miles of my house, and because neither are in geographic areas that have been mentioned in all the coverage of Chipotle's food safety issues. The one on the Post Road is one that my kids have patronized frequently ... and that I've asked them to avoid since the E. coli outbreak occurred.

My point is not that these issues matter more once they might actually affect me. (Though, to be fair, we all pay more attention when issues like these hit close to home.) Rather, my larger point is that virtually every Chipotle in the country is going to be facing visits from skeptical health inspectors who can smell blood in the water.

I have no doubt that Chipotle is going to do everything it can to improve its food safety processes, but I am a little skeptical about its ability to rebuild its brand to its previous heights. Maybe it can happen, but it is going to take a long time.

It is a lesson that every food company needs to take to heart. Brand equity is something that needs to be nurtured at every turn ... and in the food business, especially, that means understanding that even the smallest misstep can damage the brand.