What hasn’t been said about the Chipotle saga? If you haven’t been following the restaurant giant’s struggles dealing with an E. Coli outbreak, you can get a quick rundown here.
I’m not for piling on, but given Charleston is a foodie town I wanted to boil down Chipotle’s missteps and overreactions into a few easy lessons for our restaurant community should this type of event happen in their kitchens:
Lesson 1: Take it seriously. Chipotle didn’t readily acknowledge the issue and tried to downplay it initially. Here’s the skinny: People ate your food in several locations and got sick. It’s a big deal. If you’re a 1-store operation, you have no room for error. Flippant comments do no good. Look no further than Jestine’s Kitchen for a great example.
Lesson 2: Be upfront and accept responsibility if you are to blame. I know the lawyers out there will (rightly) advise their clients to say nothing publicly – guarding against potential liability. I get it. We live in a litigation prone society and they are doing their job trying to protect their client. That said, when the blame is yours, take it. Chipotle did everything early on but that, even trying to blame the CDC and media for blowing the event out of proportion. I can appreciate the frustration of the Chipotle CFO in making those remarks, and it may win him some points with key investors who want to see push back, but its not going to win them points with customers or the media who report on the matter.
Lesson 3: Fix the problem in a tangible way and move on. If you have to close your restaurant to address the issue, do it. If you have to change food distributors, do it. Retrain your staff? Do it. Do what needs to be done, let people know you have fixed the problem and move on. In doing so, don’t make the problem bigger than it needs to be. In Chipotle’s case, they had a regional issue yet they are closing stores nationwide for a few hours on February 8 for “team meetings.” Here’s my problem with that: 1.) By closing stores that were not a part of the problem, you have now given the impression it is a nationwide issue versus a regional one; 2.) It’s eyewash. There won’t be any mass sanitizing of equipment or retraining of employees. It’s simply a symbolic move in an effort to show the public that they take this seriously.
Crisis communications aren’t rocket science and we’ve addressed them previously. Most issues like this are survivable if handled correctly. The public is generally forgiving of first-time mistakes (my rule of public interaction: Everybody Gets One) especially if an owner is contrite and adept at correcting the issue. They are not so forgiving of systemic problems or folks playing the blame game. There are a lot of fine restaurants in Charleston and it’s not difficult to find a replacement for one’s fav rave…