Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. has a new game online, a new executive director of food safety on payroll, a new public relations firm in New York City and new ways of cooking its food away from its restaurants.
Now all it needs is new sales.
Keeping with corporate promises about transparency in the wake of six foodborne illness outbreaks in the last six months of 2015, the Denver-based burrito chain’s executives revealed projections for the first quarter of this year recently.
They said the good news was that sales across their 2,000 restaurants in February were down only 26 percent compared to 2015. The bad news was that sales in January this year were down more than 36 percent compared with 2015.
The worse news was that the executives expect the chain to post its first quarterly loss since going public in 2006 when the hard numbers are in for early 2016. Chipotle stock is expected to log a loss of about a dollar per share for the first quarter, compared with about $3.80 on the plus side for the first quarter of 2015
The new brain on the block
Among the top executives at Chipotle now is James Marsden, known for his research work with meat.
“He is executive director of food safety and reports to co-CEOs Steve Ells and Monty Moran. He’s with us full-time now,” said communications director Chris Arnold, who did not respond to other questions about Marsden’s new job.
Marsden did not respond to requests for comment. He retired from his position at Kansas State University in December, said university vice president for communications Jeffery Morris. While at the school Marsden served as associate director of the National Agriculture Biosecurity Center.
Chipotle officials have not said how Marsden will be involved with or impact the food safety plan they developed during and after the Salmonella, E. coli and norovirus outbreaks that sickened hundreds of customers in 2016.
Too many cooks? Or just the right number off-site
Having positioned itself with consumers as a “fresh” and “from scratch” operation where food is literally prepared before the customers’ eyes, Chipotle has been stepping back from some of those concepts since it began reacting to the illnesses connected to its food.
Founder and co-CEO Steve Ells announced early in the game that Chipotle would move some fresh produce preparation to centralized kitchens to decrease chances of contamination by employees and other foods.
Another prong of the Chipotle food safety fork involves intensive — and expensive — sample testing for incoming food. Most food safety experts say such sampling doesn’t have good odds for finding pathogens because the majority of the food isn’t tested.
In the past week the continuation of the testing program was the topic of a cascade of media reports. The chain reaction reporting was sparked by unnamed sources, cited by the Wall Street Journal, who said Chipotle officials were considering paring down the new food safety plan already.
“We are not stepping back from anything. Any changes we may make to our food safety programs will be changes for the better,” said Chipotle’s communications director. He did not respond to requests for details.
One thing Chipotle is stepping away from is fully cooking meat at the individual store level.
The steak used in its burritos, bowls and tacos will now be cooked at centralized kitchens and sent to individual restaurants in bags. At the store level the meat will be marinated and seared, according to Chipotle officials’ recent statements to some media.
Three strikes and you win
To help get the word out and the customers in, Chipotle recently hired New York City public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, known for its expertise with Facebook and YouTube campaigns.
Chipotle is hoping to snag customers with a new guacamole-themed online media game, “Guac Hunter.” It follows mass mailings and text message deals for free burritos, which company officials partly blamed for poor sales numbers.
The game launches March 21 and is set to run through April 10. Skill level isn’t as important as persistence in the Chipotle game, which rewards three failed mobile attempts by a player with a free coupon.
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