This is a Supply Chain Matters update commentary regarding Chipotle Mexican Grill, specifically efforts to address its ongoing food-safety challenge that not only threatens the restaurant chain’s value to its brand and to its investors, but on perceived quality risks in its farm to fork supply chain.   Chipotle logo

This week, the restaurant chain posted its first quarterly financial loss as a public company amid a nearly 30 percent reduction in same store sales. Total revenues were down 23.4 percent while net income dropped by $122.6 million. Operating margin dropped to 6.8 percent from just over 28 percent a year earlier due to what was described as higher marketing, waste and food testing costs.

In a previous February commentary, we observed that the restaurant chain had entered a new critical phase, one focused in rebuilding its brand integrity along with assuring that food safety practices were re-addressed across the supply chain and within its individual restaurants. In our mid-March commentary, we highlighted reports that seemed to put a different twist to the ongoing crisis. At the time, The Wall Street Journal citing informed sources, reported that the restaurant chain considered stepping back from the food safety changes touted back in February. Rather than conduct high-resolution DNA testing on a multiple of inbound supply ingredients, the plan was apparently to test only certain foods. Further reported was that the chain’s beef supplies would be pre-cooked in centralized kitchen facilities to insure that E.coli was eliminated, and then packaged in vacuum-sealed bags and shipped to local outlets where the product could be marinated and grilled.

We speculated that the decision to scale back DNA testing may have been brought about by further process and supply chain focused analysis.  Yet, the restaurant chain later announced the hiring of a noted meat industry food safety expert to be its new director of overall food safety.  We questioned whether such decisions for scaling back testing should have been made so early in the process, without the insight or input of the chain’s newly hired food safety expert, and without allowing more time to address consumer concerns regarding uncertainty in food sourcing and handling practices.

Our stated belief was that restoring consumer trust in a badly damaged brand is not a one-time marketing or financial budgeting challenge, but rather a systemic management challenge to address quality and food safety practices among all farm to fork processes and activities.

The chain has since stepped-up training within local restaurants on food safety and food handling practices as well as the assistance of a field leadership program to assist local managers in managing and auditing food safety and handling practices.

Chipotle’s co-CEO, Steve Ells indicated to investors that rebuilding trust with customers would take some time. While we found that that admission insightful and somewhat overdue, we were taken back by a subsequent statement:

We will continue to make it our top priority to entice customers to return to Chipotle through effective promotions and marketing, and when they do return, we’re committed to providing the very best experience that we can to help ensure that they will keep coming back.”

Not a mention of testing and assuring consistent food safety practices as the top priority.

Further noted in business media reports are even further changes in food preparation and sourcing practices after apparent customer feedback indicated a decline in the quality of certain ingredients. Customers complained that produce or lettuce no longer tasted as it should. For instance, now the chain claims to have refined its washing of lettuce which will once again allow local restaurants to cut lettuce locally while still ensuring that it is safe. Similarly, bell peppers will be blanched and sliced in local restaurants rather than the previous change to do so in central kitchens.

On a positive note, customers apparently have endorsed the process for cooking organic beef in vacuum sealed bags within central kitchens because the meat is now perceived to not as dry to the taste.

As Chipotle customers may now be aware, the chain is attempting to incent customers to return by offering free burritos and other promotions. Over 5 million free burrito offers were issued followed by a direct mail promotion distributed to over 20 million households. Judging from the customer traffic statistics to-date, the chain’s most loyal consumers may not be completely convinced as of yet to return, although data seems to point to return by some not as loyal but cost conscious customers. One equity analyst has indicated that couponing is a short-term rather than a more sustainable strategy for restoring traffic.

In recent weeks, both Glass Lewis & Co. and Institutional Shareholder Services, both influential proxy advisory firms have weighed in on management. ISS is recommending a vote against re-election of certain current Chipotle board members at the upcoming annual stockholder meeting in May. The firm questions whether the ongoing food safety issues have exposed a flawed board succession process that nominated directors who have the management skill sets to keep pace with a chain’s size and complexity. Further stated was a failure of risk oversight by the firm’s Audit Committee.

Glass Lewis has reportedly taken issue with the board’s pay-for-performance model. As we noted in our March commentary, senior executive bonuses were recently changed to be pegged to increases in the firm’s stock price alone. ISS has also opined that the majority of discussion with major investors has focused on improving share price and changing executive compensation as opposed to addressing food safety.

The reality of losing the trust of loyal customers is indeed an ongoing challenge and Chipotle management must by our lens, have as its collective top priority means and methods to address food safety and quality from farm to fork. Management compensation not directly tied in some fashion to that goal, and management briefings and direction-setting that continues to lead with marketing and sales tactics are not going to convince this past Chipotle consumer that issues have been addressed and the quality and safety of food is industry-leading. Apparently we are not alone in that perception.

Bob Ferrari

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