Chipotle Founder: We’ll Stop Making People Sick

Written By Scott Joseph On December 16, 2015

Chipotle letter

Is it still your burrito, or is it a wrap?

There’s no question that Chipotle, the assemblage burrito chain that gained a reputation for the quality and humane sourcing of its ingredients, has had some bad press lately. Since July, five outbreaks of illness in 10 states traced to Chipotle restaurants have been reported. More than 350 have gotten sick from E. coli, norovirus, or salmonella poisoning.

It’s difficult to bounce back from something like that. Some might just ignore it and wait for it all to blow over. But Steve Ells, the founder, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle, has gone the other direction.

In full page ads, including in Wednesday’s New York Times and the Orlando Sentinel, Ells published “Comprehensive Food Safety Plan: A Letter from Chipotle Founder Steve Ells.” In the long (seven paragraphs) letter, Ells not only acknowledges the situation but specifically refers to “an E. coli outbreak that sickened 52 people and a norovirus outbreak that sickened approximately 140 people at a single Chipotle restaurant in Boston…”

It seems wise to acknowledge that there was a problem, but is it smart to lay it all out there on the buffet?

“I thought he did the right thing, for sure,” said Sara Brady of Winter Park’s Sara Brady Public Relations. Brady is a nationally recognized expert on crisis and reputation management (she was quoted in the Times Tuesday about the Bill Cosby case). “He’s been pretty forthcoming,” she continued. “He’s acknowledged the problem, apologized and demonstrated a sincere concern.”

Indeed, the second paragraph of the published letter begins, “The fact that anyone has become ill eating at Chipotle is completely unacceptable to me and I am deeply sorry.”

For much of the letter, Ells explains what the company is doing correct any issues with food safety, including conducting “a farm-to-fork risk assessment of all of our restaurant protocols and procedures.”

He also wrote: “In the end, it may not be possible for anyone to completely eliminate all risk with regard to food (or from any environment where people congregate)…” but that the company will strive for near zero risk.

“It doesn’t mean people are going to flock back to the restaurant,” said Brady. But “I think overall it was a very smart thing.”

What do you think? Were you a Chipotle fan before the outbreak? Have the food safety breaches stopped you from eating there? Does Ells’ letter put you more at ease?

Leave a comment below.

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