When a brand is involved in a health-crisis, bouncing back and restoring consumers’ faith can be a long and delicate process full of communications challenges. In this episode, we’ll explore the rise, fall, and rise again of Mexican food giant, Chipotle, with Dr. Martha Roberts, Florida’s former Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture.
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Hello, and thank you for joining Ubben talking, I’m your host, Michelle Ubben, and today we’re exploring how one major restaurant chain’s food safety crisis put it in direct conflict with its brand promise and about the steps it took to bounce back.
Later we will speak with Dr. Martha Roberts, Florida’s former Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture and a nationally renowned and celebrated food safety expert.
The year is coming to a close, which makes it the perfect time to look back on how far we’ve come in reaching whatever goals we may have set for ourselves. For some it may be to hit the gym, for others it may be to finally clean out that closet, and for one popular Mexican grill, it was to bounce back from a multi-years-long brand-threatening health crisis.
Chipotle’s brand promise of “food with integrity” painted an idyllic picture of fresh foods from the farmer around the corner from you. You could see it being prepared right in front of you and eat it with the peace of mind knowing it’s probably one of the healthier food choices you made that day, right?
But it turns out that when you get food from many sources, and when you have an army of human beings preparing it freshly in front of you there are a lot more opportunities for illness-causing microbes to be introduced.
For a brand whose promise is “food with integrity,” making customers sick is, well, a big problem and the very thing Chipotle was selling as a differentiator from their competition was the cause.
So, it’s little wonder that Chipotle has had such a long, painful recovery since the food safety outbreaks in 2015 that caused its stock to plummet and many of its loyal customers to depart. Additional foodborne outbreaks persisted, as recently as last year when hundreds were sickened in Ohio.
Chipotle’s crisis stemmed from the well-intentioned desire to give customers what they want – fresh, local food – and that brand differentiation catapulted Chipotle to unprecedented success until the trouble started. In the time since, Chipotle has done what any company facing this type of crisis should do: fix the problem, then open up a positive, proactive, parallel track.
Chipotle invested in an army of food safety experts to improve its processes, then moved to fresh advertising, a new loyalty program, and an emphasis on digital sales and delivery services. Recently, it’s also made commitments to helping the struggling farming community through seed grants. The result? In 2019, Chipotle’s stock price finally reached its 2015 peak.
The lessons from Chipotle’s rise and fall and rise again are the stuff of legend. Food brands will continue to jockey for advantage and disrupt the marketplace by giving consumers what they want. Still, they can’t ignore or neglect the basics. First and foremost, food with integrity must be defined as food that is safe to eat.
Join me as I speak with Florida’s former deputy commissioner of agriculture Dr. Martha Roberts about what went wrong in the Chipotle case and how a company can survive — and rebuild — after a brand-threatening crisis.
Michelle: Martha, welcome.
Martha Roberts: Thank you for having me
Michelle: So very often you’ll come home maybe not feeling very well from after a meal, but you don’t know if it was something you ate at the restaurant, you don’t know if you’re coming down with a stomach bug. You may never report that to anyone. When does it go from being an isolated incident to a food safety outbreak? How does that work?
Martha Roberts: An outbreak is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and health officials as two or more people being ill.
Michelle: Only two?
Martha Roberts: Only two. Quite frankly, CDC estimates that only one in 10 is ever reported. Other research papers say, “Oh, that’s way too low. It’s only probably one in 50 or one in 100 cases are ever reported.” I would say 90% of us have some sort of foodborne illness during the year, very mild probably. An upset stomach or something. But we rarely would go to the doctor to have a fecal sample or to have a diagnosis to tell us that you have a norovirus or some other type of organism.
Martha Roberts: Well, in today’s world we have things like whole genome sequencing where if you get sick and your doctor takes a sample, you can actually test the bacteria, look at its DNA profile, and determine that, ah-ha, this case up in Minnesota and a case in Florida and the case up in New York, all are exactly the same.
Martha Roberts: Did they all travel to the same theme park? Did they all stay at the same hotel at some convention?
Martha Roberts: And then what used to be known as just a sporadic case of foodborne illness suddenly becomes an outbreak investigation, and so they’re trying to follow through and find out the exact profile and what happened.
Michelle: So Martha, when we talk about crisis with our clients, we often talk about fiscal and physical crisis. Food safety type issues tend to fall into the physical crisis where you can really have significant life-threatening consequences of a food crisis.
Michelle: I feel like Chipotle is such an interesting case study because they disrupted the entire marketplace with their promise of food with integrity. Generations really responded to that and sought out food that was prepared right in front of them, locally sourced. but it created some food safety risks.
Martha Roberts: Yes. Chipotle is both a good example and a bad example, but first and foremost make sure that your actions match your message. You can not say one thing and do totally the opposite. You have to take responsibility for the vision and the message that you’re giving to the consumers to deliver something that’s safe and palatable and nutritious.
Michelle: Absolutely. When we talk about brand promises, the number one rule is make a brand promise to your customers that you can keep, and however you define food with integrity, it certainly would have to mean food that’s not going to make you sick.
Martha Roberts: Everybody has to take responsibility for their portion of the food chain and ensure that they’re following all of the parameters and all of the actions.
Martha Roberts: You have to be responsible in food safety and the health of not only your workers, but your consumers has to be paramount.
Michelle: So it’s a training issue, it’s a process issue, making sure that if you are preparing food freshly in front of customers where they can see it, that you’re set up in such a way to prevent cross-contamination and things like that.
Martha Roberts: Absolutely. You have to follow through, and that’s what made me so angry with Chipotle and their claims for such high quality and integrity. And really for the younger generation, for the millennials, for Generation X, I mean, that is the food to eat. But to do so and to then have so many foodborne outbreaks across the country, not just in one store, but in multiple stores, it was basically due to unsanitary practices: not washing your hands, spreading bacteria, spreading viruses from one place to another. It’s just totally unacceptable.
Michelle: Let me share some stats for you to react to. We did a survey here in Florida, our breakthrough research division, and based on that we found that 55% of Floridians believe that food that’s prepared fresh on site at a resist is healthier than food prepared elsewhere. and 44% said they feel more comfortable in restaurants with open kitchens that are viewable to patrons. But ironically, those were some of the things that complicated the supply chain in the Chipotle case and made people sick.
Martha Roberts: Be careful. If they’ve got an open kitchen, make sure it’s clean. Make sure that that person that’s handling the food is washing their hands in between handling meat items and salad items. Make sure they’re not using the same knife that you see them going from one food to the other with the same utensils. Make sure that they’re not touching their face, that they’re touching their nose, that they’re touching their hair, that they’re being rather glib and not being careful in what they’re doing.
Michelle: Let’s talk food safety crisis and how that’s handled. We can talk about Chipotle as an example. Some of the advice that we give to clients when it comes to making a statement in a crisis is about the seven C’s. Caring: you have to express concern-
Martha Roberts: Absolutely.
Michelle: … for the people who were affected. You have to take ownership for that. Confidence: you have to convey that you have control of the situation, you know the facts, you’re in command. Confirmation: you have to be able to confirm the facts, let people know exactly what’s going on, give them meaningful information to act on. Containment: that in this particular outbreak, you’ve shut it down, you’ve got it under control. Coordination: if there are government entities or others that have a role in this outbreak or this crisis, that you’re cooperating and coordinating with them. Call to action: if there’s something that consumers should do as a result of this, giving people that information. And then correction: taking steps to try to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again.
Martha Roberts: The one thing that I didn’t hear within your seven Cs that I cannot at the moment think of, were beginning with C to add to that, I think the rapidity with which you address any even intimation of foodborne illness or any intimation that you need to recall the food you’re producing because of some major concern. The rapidity with which you get all of the information put together so that you know exactly what happened to that food, so that you can pull it back, and have as you said ownership and you have it contained, you have it under your control and the rapidity with which you express concern and communicate with anyone who’s been affected by some problem or some actual outbreak that has been caused. If you can think of a synonym with a C.
Michelle: I think you hit several of them. But you’re right. You have to move fast to get the facts, to coordinate with the authorities, to recall if necessary to protect customers. Speed is essential in any crisis and very often it’s human nature that you want to not go public with something that could be an embarrassment, be a damage to your brand, slow down sales, but the very first order of business is keeping your customers safe. So you have to move fast.
Martha Roberts: And be available. You can’t hide in your office and have the staff answer the phone and say “no comment” or “you’re unavailable to address the situation”. You have to be transparent, upfront and honest.
Michelle: Leaders are made in a moment of crisis and you can’t substitute anything for a leader at the helm of an organization that’s going to do the right thing.
Martha Roberts: Chipotle did an excellent job in trying to bring in experts to tell them what to do, and I give them full, full kudos for that because that was an essential part for anyone to find out first what went wrong, and then to correct it and to get the advice of experts to say how to correct it.
Martha Roberts: Now it’s their responsibility to follow through. So I’m wishing them well and I wish anybody involved in any foodborne outbreak the best in handling it. We should all be prepared, anybody, from a farmer to the retail store to the processor to the restaurant to the local McDonald’s, Chipotle, whomever. You’ve all got to have a plan, hopefully never having to execute the plan, but you’ve got to be prepared for something going wrong.
Michelle: If there is a crisis. It could happen to anybody. We often say it’s a matter of when, not if.
Michelle: Can you think of an example of a company that bounced back from a food safety crisis because they did the right things after a crisis?
Martha Roberts: Business statistics will tell you if you’ve had a major food recall, or if you’ve had several food recalls or an outbreak, you may not last. Your business may totally fold. It’s critical that you have that plan as you were going over those seven great C’s to address exactly what you’re going to do if you get involved with a recall.
Martha Roberts: You may go back in history and think of the awful situation with Jack in the Box hamburgers and the deaths that were caused from undercooked hamburger. That is an instance where they did hire a very credible third party. He came in and totally revamped the situation. I do believe that they came back from that for a few years. I don’t know the status of the company now, but I think that they did some major overhauling.
Martha Roberts: A recall or an outbreak doesn’t have to mean the demise of your business, but once you have lost the trust of the consumer, it’s very difficult to regain it. That’s why in some ways the Chipotle situation is so interesting psychologically because so many people are just willing to overlook what they have not done to follow through and to correct the deficiencies within their stores.
Michelle: I can tell you that any given day we have several staffers who are eating Chipotle for lunch, so I very much hope that their experts have given them good advice and that they follow it and that they’re at the end of their troubles.
Michelle: Martha, thank you so much for being with us today.
Martha Roberts: Oh, Michelle, thank you so much, and I commend you on your program and getting the information out to the public.
Michelle: I hope you’ll join me again.
Martha Roberts:I will indeed.
[CLOSE] Today you’ve been talking food safety crisis with my guest, Florida’s former Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture, Dr. Martha Roberts. If you want to read more about our conversation, visit sachsmedia.com/podcast. And make sure to subscribe for more episodes on communications breakthroughs in unexpected places.