Chipotle Mexican Grill – Caught in the “Fiasco Vortex”


America’s fast food darling, Chipotle Mexican Grill, is caught in America’s crisis du jour as the result of food contamination issues linked to hundreds of sick customers across 10 states.

Chipotle is caught squarely in the “Fiasco Vortex” and rather than seeking to “come out ahead,” the company should be squarely focused on fixing operational problems, assuring its consumers that issues are being addressed, and having the patience to weather the storm.

The Fiasco Vortex is a concept created by our CEO Eric Dezenhall. It describes a PR crisis that has snowballed to something so massive – aided and abetted by vicious news cycles and social media – that it has become one part legitimate crisis, three parts farce.  The vortex whips the company or individual in crisis into an inescapable cyclone.

Some experts have compared this Chipotle crisis to the 1993 E. coli breakout that devastated West Coast chain Jack in the Box. If you’re not familiar with that particular crisis, it has been called “far and away the most infamous food poison outbreak in contemporary history” by Poisoned author Jeff Benedict. Four children died in California and Washington State.  In addition to the deaths, more than 170 individuals were hospitalized – 38 of which were children who suffered varying degrees of kidney damage.  In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced new food safety regulations and measures, the meatpacking industry was forced to adopt a number of steps to increase safety, and in 1997, California adopted the Lauren Beth Rudolph Food Safety Act, which was named after one of the children who died.

It took nearly a decade for Jack in the Box to shake the stigma of the crisis.  In an age of 24-hour news cycles and social media, Chipotle will have to be patient.

So what are the elements of this crisis that have locked Chipotle in the Fiasco Vortex?

  • Americans love to see the honest and pure fall. We have seen countless examples of celebrities, companies, and politicians who espouse soaring moral standards fall to their own devices.  Tiger Woods, Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Aaron Schock are perfect examples.  Chipotle is no different.  With its mission of “Food With Integrity,” the company has worked to elevate its moral standing above others in the fast food industry. Now, its critics are more than happy to stand on the sidelines and snipe as Chipotle stumbles through this crisis.
  • Related to the above point, the company has prided itself on transparency of its ingredients. It’s a word that makes people feel good, but it’s better that the food be safe.
  • Corporate leadership that takes a defensive stance. In the first interviews with media and investors, Chipotle’s CFO and CEO placed blame on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others.  Rather than a defensive stance, the tack of talking about addressing operational issues, as CEO Steve Ells did in an NBC interview yesterday, is the right approach.
  • Multiple breakouts. Readers might not realize that this scandal is the result of two separate food-related illnesses. First, E. coli on the West Coast, followed by an aggressive norovirus outbreak on the East Coast.  These unrelated incidents suddenly became intertwined, and give the impression the company has low safety controls.
  • Chipotle blamed for Boston College basketball game loss. The Fiasco Vortex loves a story like this.  A father of a Boston College basketball player told members of the press that his son lost 10 pounds after getting sick from eating at Chipotle and couldn’t play to his usual standard.  Thus, BC lost a home game against Penn State.  While it may be factually true, the media laps up these types of anecdotes that fuel the Vortex.

This is not PR problem with a quick PR fix. Rather, the root of the problem is an operational issue. The key for Chipotle, as it is for any company in the eye of the storm, is to shore up those operational issues, make sure your customers know it, and be patient until the Vortex moves on to the next corporate boogeyman.

From Aaron Walker and Stephanie Allen
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