Chipotle’s Food Issues: Communicating Openly to Control the Message

July 9, 2016

By Bill Coletti, CEO, Kith


Critical Takeaways:

  • Critical Moments can occur at any time, without warning. You must always be prepared.
  • By taking four steps, Chipotle was able to engage with customers, communities, and critics through a critical moment.

chipotle kith consulting 3 Cs critical moments

It is a food manufacturer, retailer or restaurant’s worst nightmare – a food borne illness outbreak attributed to the company. Chipotle is now recovering from its third – and worst – food safety scare in as many months. Dozens of people sickened, share price down double digit percentage points and yet Chipotle’s Facebook page is still covered with adoring consumers craving their next Chipotle fix.

It was less than two weeks from the time the outbreak was first linked to Chipotle until the reopening of 43 stores. Let’s take a quick look at some key lessons we’ve learned from Chipotle’s response to the food safety situation.


  • Halo effect – Chipotle has built its brand around the quality of ingredients it serves from how the food was produced, processed, and even cooked in the restaurant. Because this is the very essence of what Chipotle represents to many consumers, did they get a full pass from the public in the case of a food safety issue? No, they didn’t. But they likely were given a softer scrutiny from the average consumer because of the halo effect associated with Chipotle’s brand efforts over the last decade.
  • Respond swiftly – Within 48 hours of the outbreak, Chipotle shut down 43 stores in the Pacific Northwest, only 11 of which were suspected of being a source of the illness. The company issued a press release with multiple actions that were being taken to get to find the root of the issue. And Chipotle did this while offering sympathy to those impacted.
  • Take action – Regulators were unable to identify the source of the E. coli outbreak. Despite that fact, when Chipotle issued the press release to let consumers know these stores are open for business, Chipotle listed a number of actions the company is taking to prevent food safety issues in the future including hiring 2 food safety consultants.
  • Communicate openly – Chipotle issued information about their actions, what regulator agencies were involved in the process, and updates throughout the investigative process. They did this via the company’s website, press releases, and social media.

These 4 lessons can help companies engage with customers, communities, and critics through critical moments that can have lasting implications for a company that does not heed them.

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.