Published on: June 10, 2016by Kevin Coupe
Chipotle, once the nation's favorite fast casual Mexican food chain, now has dropped the fourth place according to an annual Harris Poll that measure's consumer sentiments about restaurant brands.
The plummeting rating would appear to be a direct result of a series of food safety issues that plagued the company over the past year, causing some consumers to get sick and some of its restaurants to be temporarily closed down. Perhaps even more worrisome is the fact that despite that Chipotle has claimed to have everything under control, with a more centralized approach to food prep that it hopes will stave off problems (though centralization also tends to erode its whole locally-made-food-with-integrity vibe), it never has been able to say concretely what caused the problems to begin with.
USA Today writes this morning that Moe's Southwest Grill, with roughly one third as many locations as Chipotle, has ascended to the top spot, followed by Taco Bell, Qdoba and Baja Fresh.
Now, to be sure, it isn't all about food safety. The USA Today story notes that the fast casual landscape has become much more competitive, with lots of new menu items introduced by Chipotle's competitors. But even that, it seems to me, can be connected to food safety issues - after all, while Moe's is rolling out an ancho chili lime rice bowl as a limited-time item, Chipotle is busy distributing coupons in an effort just to get people to walk in the front door again and try one of its burritos.
Now, this isn't to suggest that Chipotle is facing its last days. The coupons have had a strong redemption rate, the company says, and it still has far more locations and higher sales than Moe's. It is a little early to suggest turning the lights off.
But - and this is a big but - the Chipotle lesson is one that has to be learned by every single company in the food business. Food safety isn't just about not making people sick ... though that ought to be enough. It also is about protecting and sustaining the brand.
To cut corners, or to not take seriously things like the new mandates created by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a result of the bipartisan Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), is not just an ethical lapse, but also a breach of one's responsibility as a leader of whatever food company you work for.
I've gotten to know way more about this stuff than I ever thought I would because of all sorts of work I've been doing in this area, talking to both retailers and suppliers about food safety infrastructure. (As usual, full disclosure - MNB is sponsored in part by ReposiTrak, which offers an industry-wide solution to food safety that has been exclusively endorsed by the Food Marketing Institute, among others.)
The decline in reputation that Chipotle has suffered ought to be an Eye-Opening cautionary lesson for anyone in the food business.
- KC's View: