Supply Chain Matters has provided ongoing commentary and has pledged to keep our readers updated regarding the ongoing brand and supply chain related challenges that have impacted Chipotle Mexican Grill. Specifically, we refer to the past series of food related illnesses including E-coli, salmonella and norovirus that date back to 2015.

This week, the restaurant chain announced its September-ending financial performance and, according to financial media sub-headlines, the effects of the prior food safety breakouts that sickened restaurant patrons appear to be still evident.  Chipotle logo

On the financial side, the restaurant chain reported that same-store sales fell by a worse-than-expected 21.9 percent in the third quarter. Profitability dropped by 95 percent, yet that is better than previous bottom-line results.

The chain’s Co-CEO indicated on the briefing call: “. while we are on the road to recovery, we’re not satisfied and we’ll continue to work extremely hard to make the necessary adjustments necessary to restore our business and deliver results as quickly as possible.”

Further indicated: We are focused on delivering a safe and extraordinary guest experience in every restaurant, restoring trust and building sales, restoring our economic model and enhancing the guest experience through innovation.”

Announced were several new initiatives directed at broadening menu options, fulfilling online orders including mobile ordering technology, along with consideration for airing more television commercials.

To further efforts in improving food safety in restaurants and supply chain, the chain’s CFO pointed to an established an independent Food Safety Advisory Council made up of some of the country’s foremost experts in food safety and food microbiology. This advisory council is charged with continuously reviewing food safety programs and looking for opportunities to strengthen them even more. Further indicated was significantly expanded training, food safety inspections, third-party and internal audits of individual restaurants. However, there were statements related to need for local restaurant management to maintain “high throughput.”

On the positive side, there were indications that the chain is adding to regional executive leadership to help improve staff training and the individual guest experience. However, there was another statement: “we are keenly aware that safe food alone will not bring people into our restaurants. Instead, they come for delicious food and an excellent guest experience.” Reiterated was a commitment to serving the best tasting food that is made with ingredients that are raised with respect to the environment, animals and the people that produce them.

Our sense is that sales and marketing efforts still prevail over visible efforts directed at improved food safety and quality. To add that impression, the chain’s Vice President of Marketing was part of the financial performance briefing team, somewhat of an unusual occurrence in these types of events.  This executive took the opportunity to outline three major marketing campaigns that occurred during the quarter, each with different but complementary objectives. The first was a food safety advancements campaign designed to communicate what has been done to ensure the safety of the chain’s food. The other two campaigns were directed at love of Chipotle and on the quality of its ingredients. Food giveaway coupons were further part of such campaigns. The chain’s marketing executive further pointed to paid research of loyal patrons indicating a 90 percent sentiment that the chain has appropriately addressed the food safety issues, and that trust has risen to pre-crisis levels.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       In our February blog commentary, we observed that the restaurant chain had entered what we believed was a new critical phase, one focused in rebuilding its brand integrity along with assuring that food safety practices were re-addressed across the supply chain and within its individual restaurants. We had consistently perceived that perhaps the chain was more focused on emphasizing broadened sales and marketing focused initiatives to bring previous loyal patrons back as opposed to efforts at expanding food safety practices across the supply chain. That now appears to be changing somewhat.

One fact remains with Chipotle.  Neither U.S. government regulators nor Chipotle ever definitively identified the specific root causes of the prior disease outbreaks. That is the irony and the ongoing challenge since many suspicions were identified that included food sourcing with the chain’s supply chain. While there have been no subsequent incidents, we continue with the view that prior loyal patrons are obviously either unconvinced or have moved on to other experiences. This author for one, remains of that view,

We all know that supply chain snafus, especially those related to food safety, can and will have a lasting effect for businesses. In the specific case of Chipotle, that effect continues and so does the rebuilding of brand and supply chain food safety trust.

Bob Ferrari

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