Chipotle’s Strategy to Win Back Customers: Free Burritos

The chain also plans to host a company-wide meeting on new food-safety measures.

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Jan 15, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Fearing more than a little stomach bloat from chowing down on a gigantic burrito, some Chipotle fans have steered clear of the fast-casual chain in the wake of multiple food-borne-illness outbreaks. Chipotle executives are now hoping the promise of free burrito bowls and taco trios will entice customers to return to the Mexican joint.

Co-CEO Monty Moran said the chain is doubling the amount of food each location can give away to its customers during an investor conference this week, CNBC reports. The exact giveaways will be up to each store’s discretion, allowing managers to create their own campaigns.

While its fresh, non-GMO ingredients used to be a popular selling point for the fast-casual chain, public opinion took a dive after E. coli, norovirus, and salmonella outbreaks sickened more than 500 people across 10 states in 2015. Chipotle faces lawsuits from customers and investors, not to mention a criminal investigation regarding the norovirus outbreak in California.

Along with the freebies, executives announced that all of the chains’ 2,000 stores would shut down for several hours on Feb. 8 for a food-safety meeting. Soon thereafter, Chipotle will begin an intensive campaign focused on assuring news outlets that the food outbreaks are over and reminding consumers how great the food tastes, according to Food Safety News.

This reassurance from the chain’s executives helped bolster Chipotle’s stock, which has continued to climb since Wednesday. In 2015, the stock dropped by 30 percent, according to Bloomberg.

Chipotle’s marketing game plan is its latest attempt to restore its image. CEO Steve Ells wrote an apology letter published in 61 newspapers and promised that the chain would be the “safest place to eat” during an appearance on The Today Show last December. That month, the chain also announced new food preparation protocols—from dicing some ingredients at a central location to blanching vegetables in boiling water—that “will reduce the risk of contamination to a level near zero,” Chipotle spokesperson Chris Arnold told Fortune.

While investors appear satisfied with Chipotle’s plans to restore its image as “food with integrity,” the consumer response remains to be seen. According to a survey by Packaged Facts, nearly half of 2,000 respondents said they have become increasingly concerned about food safety over the past few years. For Chipotle, those concerns translated to a change in sales, which dropped by as much as 37 percent in 2015.