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Chipotle still seeking food safety; Ells says ‘esoteric’ plan failed

Repeating phrases they have been using for the past year, officials with Chipotle Mexican Grill this week announced food safety enhancements and dismal sales numbers.

The news broke Monday that the Denver-based burrito chain would be installing new air purifying equipment and ice machine sanitizers in all of its existing 2,200 fast food restaurants and all new locations. A U.S. company, RGF Environmental Group Inc. of Riviera Beach, FL, announced it would be supplying Chipotle with the equipment from its Palm Beach County production plant.

Chipotle Mexican Grill sign“RGF’s Reme Halo air purification units and IMSB ice machine sanitizers were tested in multiple Chipotle locations for three months. The impressive results were verified independently,” according to a statement from RGF.

The equipment uses RGF’s patented “Photohydroionization” system, which is a chemical-free, oxidation technology. It helps to control environmental sources of harmful bacteria, mold and viruses on surfaces and in restaurant settings, the Florida company reports.

Chipotle’s executives and board of directors have been struggling for 18 months to improve the restaurant chain’s food safety efforts and win back customers following six foodborne illness outbreaks in the second half of 2015.

The impact of the six outbreaks, which sickened more than 500 people in 40 states, continues to linger for the chain founded in July of 1993 by Steve Ells.

Ells faced about 2,000 investment analysts and business leaders at the annual ICR Conference in Orlando, FL, Tuesday, the same day Chipotle filed its Form 8-K with the Securities and Exchange Commission for the fourth quarter of 2016.

Comparable restaurant sales dropped 4.8 percent for the final quarter of 2016 — and that was the good news. For the third quarter of 2016 the chain saw comparable restaurant sales plummet 21.9 percent. Ells and other company officials are scheduled to give a full report on the last three months of 2016 on Groundhog’s Day.

Ells didn’t use much of his presentation time at the ICR Conference to talk about sales, though, instead focusing on and management style and philosophy, which he has steered since 1993 as Chipotle’s CEO, co-CEO and now solo CEO again.

Spending too much time on teaching employees about the “esoteric aspects of an empowered people culture” instead of how to provide the best customer service has been a problem, Ells said. (To hear his presentation, click here.) That is going to change.

Another change Ells discussed at the invitation-only investment conference involves the Chipotle hiring process. Apparently part of the “empowered people culture” pursued by the chain has included having every “crew member” interview each and every job candidate.

The everybody-gets-a-say approach resulted in line employees — who serve customers and prepare food — being pulled from regular duties to interview applicants. Also, applicants often had to return to a Chipotle location multiple times for interviews. Ells said the practice resulted in the company having to review 17 candidates for each open position.

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