Fixing a Food Crisis - Will Customers Come Back?

My husband and I were recently driving to downtown DC and noticed that a usually packed Chipotle was empty during peak dinner time.  No doubt it's a result of the multiple food safety issues - and people sickened as a result - over the past several months.  But it begs the question: will people return?  Will you?

This certainly isn't the first time a company has been plagued by foodborne illness, with perhaps the most visible incident being the 1993 Jack in the Box E.coli outbreak.  This one stemmed from under cooked hamburgers, sickening hundreds and killing four children.  It's scary, particularly when kids are involved.  But Jack in the Box is still very much around, with 2,200 outlets in 21 states.  I'm certain their recovery from this outbreak was long, and involved some serious revamping coupled with a megadose of PR, but still.  They made it.

Can Chipotle turn themselves around?  The Chicago Tribune reports this week on their next steps, including an "unprecedented marketing push." The company has said that the "Advertisements won't be a mea culpa...but rather a reminder of what Chipotle's all about: fresh and sustainably sourced ingredients. The ads will be simple, featuring "beautiful pictures of food ... and a clever headline."

But I'm not sure this will be enough.  The company's stock has plummeted to half its value since before the outbreaks and even more importantly, is a company that's risen the ranks in part due to it's "fresh, natural, organic"-type messaging.  It's one thing for a run-of-the-mill fast food chain to have a food safety scare, but does it mean something else to consumers when the company's foundation is rooted in the quality and freshness of its ingredients?

Time will tell, and most definitely Chipotle's PR agency will be put to the test.  Consumers may come back in droves, or perhaps the company so violated its core principles that it will forever be difficult if not impossible to get back to its core messaging: "we're better than other companies, and this is why..."