From the Editor: Lessons learned from Chipotle

Lessons learned from Chipotle
Colleen Cross
April 18, 2016
By
In the restaurant business, food safety is the great leveller.

We talk a lot in these pages about setting your pizzeria apart from the rest by promoting your unique selling point. But no amount of chef talent or server people skills will keep your customers if your restaurant is found to be in violation of one or more food safety regulations and those issues are not fixed promptly. The results can be devastating to your good name and your bottom line.

Chipotle Mexican Grill’s recent outbreak of food poisoning in the United States no doubt will be studied for years to come as an example of how to react when serious health issues are linked to your restaurant. The U.S.-based restaurant chain saw its story of decade-long steady sales growth take a dramatic downturn in late 2015 after E. coli, norovirus and salmonella outbreaks spanning several states sickened hundreds of customers.

The USDA investigated, tracing some of the outbreaks to sick employees and one to tomatoes. In some of the cases, sources of contamination have not been – and may never be – identified. Food handling, food preparation and employee personal hygiene were found by experts to be contributing factors. Even though the company reacted swiftly and with openness to the illnesses, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the outbreak over in early February, a lot of damage was done.

Chipotle’s net income plunged more than 40 per cent in the quarter ending Dec. 31, Nation’s Restaurant News reported, a drop due to customers staying away, and higher costs for marketing, new food safety protocols, and food waste related to its stricter testing of produce.

In response to the outbreaks, the company made several changes. Staff now wash and cut some produce items and shred cheese in central kitchens; blanche certain produce items; receive better training; and collect paid sick leave to discourage them from working while ill.

In an especially memorable act, the chain closed stores over lunch hour to conduct, and broadcast, a national employee meeting highlighting food safety.

Restaurant operators can learn a lot from a story like Chipotle’s, and imagine how much better it is to use clues to what went wrong, and what the company then did right, to prevent incidents from happening in your own restaurant.

The large chains have deep pockets, but independents have more control over their business. You can put decisions into practice quickly. This comes in handy when ordering produce and it may come in handy when communicating with staff. You can perform your own inspections, train your staff personally and observe them regularly. Being small gives you a decent chance of fixing a problem before it becomes serious and containing the damage once it does.

You can’t control everything, but educating your employees is a step in the right direction, as Tom Stankiewicz reminded us in his April/May 2015 column.

A crisis of confidence will hit not only your reputation but also your bottom line. That’s why it’s in your interest to pay attention to these high-profile news stories.

Here are some sobering estimates from Statistics Canada that transcend your bottom line: of the one in eight Canadians affected by food-borne illness, about 11,600 go to hospital and 238 die. Making sure your restaurant isn’t responsible for any of those numbers should be a priority.

Canadian Pizza will delve into food safety in future issues. Stay tuned.


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