When Laurie Schalow joined Chipotle as chief communications officer in 2017, the Mexican quick-serve chain was in crisis mode, reeling from a string of norovirus outbreaks at its stores that sickened more than 1,100 people from 2015-2018 (and ultimately cost the company $25 million in fines). Since then, Schalow has assumed the role of chief corporate affairs and food safety officer, as which she has overseen the adoption measures to ensure Chipotle’s food is safe to eat — and grown a comms team from two to 70 to assure consumers of it. All of which put the restaurant chain in the position of being able to stay operational since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic without having to make massive changes to processes and protocol. Schalow, who has more than 20-years’ experience in the quick-serve sector (She spent six years as Yum! Brands’ VP of public affairs) spoke with PRovoke about what it has taken to regain consumer trust in Chipotle following the outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, as well as continuing to grow that with health and safety concerns at a high. An edited transcript:
What was the fallout from the norovirus outbreaks in terms of Chipotle’s relationship with customers?
I think trust was an issue. We knew that we needed to rebuild and regain the trust of consumers, particularly moms and children. We lost that demographic. We spent a lot of time in 2017 and 2018 rebuilding that trust and bringing in new consumers by finding ways to excite them through new products, new innovation, new partnerships and the like.
Did communications play a role in mitigating that loss of trust?
After the (incidents), the brand went silent. They were reactive, not proactive. They just didn’t have a strategic plan of how they were going to communicate with consumers and win them back. There were two people doing PR during the crisis, and I think they reported into marketing at the time. So that was one response from Chipotle, having a team to handle a crisis through communications.
Also after 2015-2016, the brand spent two solid years making sure they were evaluating every process, every discipline to make sure food safety was locked in mode throughout the organization so today we have industry leading best practices that we’re quite proud to talk about. Especially during Covid, it bode very well for us. We already had wellness checks in place. We already had air purification systems. We already had hand sanitizers for guests and our employees. So it was pretty easy for us to pivot during a crisis like the pandemic of Covid.
How has the company’s communications function changed since that time?
When I joined Chipotle there was no communications function. I immediately knew there was a PR team of two, so I had to find them and then I had to find who was doing communications across the company, whether it was in HR, operations, legal … wherever it sat … and bring them together as a function. I first figured out the internal and external comms structure and that broadened pretty quickly to include sustainability and our philanthropic efforts with our foundation. Then I added customer service and social listening. I felt it was very important that we understand what consumers are saying about us, especially online, so we created a social listening team, who is monitoring our channels and what is being said about us. And then about a year later we added food safety and quality assurance. Communications and food safety has gone from two to about 70 team members.
Is the company where you want it to be?
I think from a brand perspective, we are definitely on the right track. Our business has turned around. We are not quite back to the average unit volumes that we had prior to the 2015 crisis. But we are getting very close, which is 2.5 million average unit volumes. But we have a brand tracker, and do research, and from what we’re seeing we have rebuilt that trust. Consumers that we lost in the past are coming back to us. We are bringing in a lot of new users as well. So all indications are that the brand is back on track and consumers love what we offer, and are voting by coming in and dining with us especially during these times.
What are the lessons learned in terms of crisis communications?
You have to make sure during a crisis its PR 101 — quickly assess and tell everybody what happened, more importantly tell them what you’re doing about it right in the moment and then what are you doing to make sure it never happens again. Those are the three golden rules. And then during the rebuilding process, you have to be very transparent, you have to be very proactive, and you have to put yourself out there even though its uncomfortable to do that. And so making sure you’re talking to consumers, that you are delivering new messages. You’ve got to talk to them in ways that are interesting to them and give them that assurance that it’s OK to come back and dine if it’s a food safety crisis. We had to talk about our industry leading practices. We had to give people a reason to come back with new menu items and innovation, new leadership, and changing the brand voice, being more proactive and out there with new advertising and different messaging.
Norovirus is rampant in society and that’s not the fault of any restaurant or cruise ship. But people bring it in and it spreads very quickly so you have to be very cautious and have protocols in place — the chemicals you use, the purification system, washing your hands, wearing gloves. Also in the supply chain, making sure you have cold chain, you have traceability, that you’re preparing everything properly. So there’s a lot of pressure on restaurants — and even more on Chipotle. We have 53 ingredients. They are all fresh, all natural ingredients, no preservatives, no additives. We are not deep frying things after they are prepared. So we have to make sure it is prepared with the utmost food safety measures in place.
How has Chipotle weathered the Covid pandemic?
We saw our digital business go from 20% to 70% overnight. We are still seeing about 50% of our business is digital and we’re definitely holding onto that. It’s what has allowed us to keep our restaurants open and not lay off employees and feed communities. If we didn’t have an app and digital makeline in our restaurants and mobile pickup shelves we would be struggling like many other chains. So that saved us.
It’s very sad. Over 100,000 restaurants have already closed and for the ones that did not have a strong delivery or take out business, it will be tough. I feel desperately for the smaller mom and pops that won’t survive the shutdown, even for the larger chains and the franchisees. It’s very tough out there. But I will also say look at how creative people got. We have parking lots converted into outdoor restaurant dining with Astroturf down and beautiful plants and heaters. But with winter coming on the East Coast I think that’s going to be challenging too.
We are about cultivating a better world. We are a brand with a purpose. So we are making sure we talk about that purpose and also staying true to our values. We reset the organization in 2018 and we reset our values as well, how we wanted to operate as a new leadership team and what we stood for. And so throughout Covid, we used those values to make decisions, whether it was paying assistance pay to the frontline workers who were deemed essential workers, paying out bonuses even when they should have been zero because of missing sales targets and things like that. Adding benefits not only for employees and their families. And just taking care of them the way we would want others to take care of us.