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Chipotle Still Doesn’t Have a Food Safety Culture

There were two interesting articles about Chipotle last week:

  1. MMA announcer Jimmy Smith says he found ‘full-sized staples’ in Chipotle burrito
  2. Chipotle’s stock is having its best quarter ever—here’s how to play it

Chipotle’s stock is getting back up to where it was before their food safety issues in 2015 and 2016. It has been a hard slogging road for them to get back. They ousted their founder and CEO, the brought in the Taco Bell CEO, this is funny and I’ll explain more later. They have continued to have food safety issues.

A quick history of our interactions with Chipotle.

In 2014 I met with a buddy of mine who was the first outside director in Chipotle’s history. He and I had worked to together before and he had just come from Taco Bell to Chipotle. We had just launched version 1 of our platform, it wasn’t even called OpsAnalitica yet, and I was telling him how he should bring this to Chipotle and let them see what it could do for their business.

He point blank told me he couldn’t. That Chipotle wasn’t a traditional restaurant company and they didn’t believe in checklists. Chipotle believed that if we hire the right people, train them to do the right things, that we don’t need checklists. He went on to say that if he brought our software to his bosses that he would get run out of there for trying to turn Chipotle in to Taco Bell. Now Brian Niccol is very slowly turning Chipotle into Taco Bell, that is what I thought was funny.

Obviously in 2015, 2016, 2018 Chipotle had major food borne illness issues. I interviewed a former Chipotle manager on our podcast, A Passion for Restaurant Operations, and he confirmed what he saw happen at the company. Basically what my buddy told me was correct that Chipotle was really focused on their culture, employee training, and promoting from within and this was working until they got over 500 restaurants and they kept growing at rocket pace. They were opening stores too quickly and couldn’t promote and train from within fast enough to keep their culture pure.

To staff these new stores they had to bring in people from the outside who didn’t come up in Chipotle and hadn’t been imbued with their culture, that is really when they started to have their issues. Now you have a company that doesn’t really have a food safety mentality, a ton of tools or systems in place to manage food safety and people who are used to having those types of tools who are running wild.

In 2017 we were asked to submit an RFP to be Chipotle’s internal audit software. I don’t know if this project was ever approved because the RFP was happening during the Brian Niccol switch over and Chipotle went dark during that period. I do know that one of our competitors, Zenput, is being used by Chipotle in some fashion to help their food safety operations, see staple article above.

I would be lying to say that if Chipotle had chosen us that we would have said no. I can say that we had a ton of internal conversations about do we really want to be in business with Chipotle for a number of reasons, most importantly that we didn’t feel like they were actually doing the things that they needed to do to fix their biggest operations problem which was and I believe still is, Food Safety.

I was in a Chipotle a couple of weeks ago, I think I have only eaten at Chipotle 1 time since 2015 and we were a Chipotle family before that. We ate there all the time. I went to the University of Denver Hotel and Restaurant School back in 92 – 95 and the first Chipotle opened 2 blocks from our building, I have a long history with the brand.

I do know from my last visit that they have a software solution but also still use a red book. I know this because I ask the managers what they do from a food safety perspective all the time. Anyone who uses paper to manage their food safety isn’t serious about food safety. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows that people don’t do their paper checklists. 94% of managers we surveyed said their teams don’t do their paper checklists correctly.

Paper isn’t a system, it’s just paper.

A system is a that you check, identify, record, upper management confirms and remediates issues that are discovered in a timely manner and that you document all of this as you go. Of course, you could do this on paper, but because it is very hard to confirm in real-time using paper, the whole system breaks down and doesn’t get done.

If you are looking to graduate from paper to a real food safety and management accountability system that is cheaper per month than the Red Book, please check us out at OpsAnalitica.com. We have the best restaurant checklist platform on the market and as the low-cost leader, we are able to deliver incredible value for less than it would cost to manage this on paper.

I hope that in Brian Niccol’s Taco Bell-ization of Chipotle, that he brings their systems and food safety culture with him, not just for me because I love Chipotle’s food but for their shareholders. If they continue to get people sick I don’t know how their stock will retain its value.

I’ve said this before and I will reiterate it again. Had Chipotle not had so much brand equity with it’s stakeholders, the last couple of years would have destroyed their chain. It is a testament to Chipotle’s founders that they built such an impressive brand that it withstood their mismanagement.

We wish Chipotle all the luck in the world and hope they can create a food safety culture that also honors their promote-from-within and hire the right people culture that served them so well for so long.

Written by

I've been in the restaurant industry for most of my adult life. I have a BSBA from University of Denver Hotel Restaurant school and an MBA from the same. When I wasn't working in restaurants I was either doing stand-up comedy, for 10 years, or large enterprise software consulting. I'm currently the Managing Director of OpsAnalitica and our Inspector platform was originally conceived when I worked for one of the largest sandwich franchisors in the country. You can reach out to me through LinkedIn.

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