Sophomore Nina Dym was ecstatic when she found out Chipotle was giving away free burritos on Feb. 8.
“I was bursting with joy,” Dym said. “Free food is nice. But free Chipotle is even better.”
On that day, Chipotle closed all locations until 3 p.m. to hold food safety meetings with employees after a string of food poisoning outbreaks.
The first of these outbreaks struck in 2015 when 285 cases of norovirus (a group of viruses that are a common cause of food-poisoning and stomach flu) were reported, all of which came from two restaurants.
But the company suffered an E. coli outbreak in the same year that caused a bigger uproar. Cases were reported in 11 states, including California.
The Center for Disease Control declared that Chipotle’s E. coli outbreak was over on Feb. 1.
After closing stores during the lunch hour, Chipotle offered a “rain check” promotion. The limited-time giveaway aimed to make up for the lunch-time inconvenience by giving away one free burrito per participant.
Senior Johann Dias is among the many students who often visit the Chipotle outlet in Loehmann’s Plaza near school.
“The free burrito was a bonus,” he said. “The E. coli issue didn’t affect my opinion on Chipotle. I still went and ate as usual.”
And many others did the same.
In a March 1 poll, 50 percent of 122 high-school students said they have continued to eat at Chipotle as often as before the health concern.
But 40 percent said they either went less or stopped going altogether to the Mexican fast-food restaurant.
Junior Jaelan Trapp is one who said he no longer eats at Chipotle.
“I just stopped craving it,” Trapp said. “I guess the public’s opinion affected mine. The E. coli outbreak really killed the popularity of Chipotle.”
Surprisingly, 10 percent of students said they went to Chipotle even more during the outbreak. The increase in attendance of students was due to fewer customers and shorter lines.
“I really like Chipotle, and we didn’t go any less than usual,” freshman Lia Kaufman said. “I did realize that the restaurants (were) definitely less packed.”
In response to the contamination, Chipotle has started a new comprehensive safety program.
“Over the last few months, we have been implementing an enhanced food safety plan that will establish Chipotle as an industry leader in food safety,” Co-CEO Steve Ells said in a press release.
The new precautions include paid sick leave, chopping of tomatoes and lettuce in a centralized location, and blanching onions to kill germs.
Chipotle plans to follow its free-burrito promotion with increased marketing and direct mail offers in order to win back customers.
—By Adam Dean