The US Presidential election and Brexit. The deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and America’s beloved Harambe. Seemingly incessant terrorist attacks and shootings, and worst of all, the absolutely heartbreaking ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria. If reading the opening of this blog post sent shivers down your spine, than you, like me, are in the “2016, you can go *you know what* yourself” club. It’s like we just spent an entire 365 days with Mercury in retrograde. For so many of us, it seemed like everything that could go wrong this year, went wrong. The optimist in me wants to believe that this means we are all overdue for some good karma and 2017 is going to be amazing from start to finish (not to mention, everyone is going to be throwing some serious New Year’s Eve parties this year). While we all are heading into 2017 a little rough around the edges, there is one brand that really took a beating this year: Chipotle. Unfortunately, the realist in me thinks that this is only the beginning for my former fast casual restaurant of choice. Here’s why.
It all began in 2015 with an E. coli breakout so widespread and poorly contained that it had even the most devoted Chipotle-heads dining at their local Moe’s. While only about 60 people actually got sick, it was a complete disaster for a brand that built its reputation based on an alleged commitment to serving top-notch ingredients. Ironically, serving fresh, never frozen food may have been the company’s downfall: many experts have blamed the outbreak on employees’ mishandling of the raw meat and fresh produce that are traditionally prepared in-house. According to a report by Fast Company, Chipotle has a turnover rate of 130%. That means, they are trusting employees they pay on average $10 an hour who in all likelihood treated the job as nothing more than a paycheck, to properly sanitize, dice and cook ingredients such as lettuce, avocados and tomatoes, as well as raw chicken and steak. In hindsight, it seems like an E. coli outbreak was inevitable.
On one hand, I think that Chipotle should be applauded for relying on traditional staffing as opposed to automation to prepare and cook its food, and of course consumers today want fresh food instead of frozen. But they didn’t have the proper protocols in place to prevent them from a disaster, and since the outbreak they have failed to rebound. This Business Insider article made an interesting point about the fact that Chipotle’s biggest mistake was placing too much focus on food and not enough on connections with customers, meaning once the food quality was jeopardized, there wasn’t much else going for the brand. While I agree with this point, I think the reason Chipotle hasn’t made a comeback and probably won’t in 2017 is because the company continues to put emphasis on growth. For the past several years, Chipotle has continually opened more than 200 new restaurants annually, or the equivalent of about one every 48 hours. According to a recent statement from the company’s CEO, they plan on opening 195-210 new restaurants in fiscal 2017. Which begs the question, why? Why are you focusing on growth when sales are down 20% and most of your locations across the country are struggling and failing? Continuing to oversaturate markets nationwide when consumers aren’t dining out at your existing restaurants just seems like a recipe for disaster to me.
I recently went to my local Chipotle at 7 p.m. on a Friday night and it was empty. Consumer opinion of the brand is still struggling, and they’re not doing enough to repair the damage. After a year of heartbreak and turmoil, I don’t know if the American people can take Chipotle going out of business in 2017. Please, Chipotle big-wigs, even if you have to make guac free in order to get people back into your restaurants (hey, a girl can dream) figure this out and figure it out fast.