Food Trends

Is Chipotle using free food to distract consumers from its corporate woes?

Chipotle Mexican Grill tried to spice up summer with its Chiptopia rewards program and has even turned to giving away free booze to bring back once loyal consumers.

But the gimmicks don’t seem to be working. In August, the company CFO Jack Hartung acknowledged that free food wasn't having an impact on the chain's revenue.

Now, over 10,000 former workers have joined a class action lawsuit, originally filed in 2014, alleging the burrito chain withheld wages after forcing them to work off the clock.

Ex-employee Leah Turner, former manager of a Colorado location, is at the helm of the lawsuit-- Turner v. Chipotle. The suit states: “Chipotle routinely requires hourly-paid restaurant employees to punch out, and then continue working until they are given permission to leave. Turner said she was told to work overtime without pay and tell her subordinates to do so as well so that the restaurant could meet its budget goals.”

Chipotle was once the darling of the fast casual industry touting themselves as “High Quality Fast Food” with their hormone-free meats and GMO-free product push. But what sets Chipotle apart from the other fast food stores could actually be hurting them. Several outlets were struck by a series of foodborne illnesses including norovirus, salmonella and E.coli last year. 

How do you recover from such negative publicity?

Maybe try just giving the food away. People will pay for it eventually, right? Earlier this week, Chipotle announced free kid's meals on Sundays during September and free drinks for high school and college students if they buy a meal and provide ID. Chipotopia, which ends this month and had some fans scratching their heads, was launched in June.  

But the free food promotions might not just be a last-minute public relations stunt.

Restaurant industry expert and CEO of The Connect Group Lonny Sweet thinks the perks are just a coincidence with the suit.

“My guess is that the perks for September were not offered as a result of the lawsuit but just coincidence. It actually takes a year or more to put together a perk program like what they are offering. Chipotle has always been a company of great standards and I’m confident they will do the right thing.”

Trey Ditto branding expert and founder of Ditto PR, does countless “brand messaging cleanups” and he believes with the right strategy the chain can regain the trust of its consumers and employees again—but it may take some time.

“This isn’t about hiring a fancy ad agency who suggests a new logo,” Ditto says, noting that any turnaround effort has to appear sincere.

And when it comes to treating its employees right, Chipotle can actually make some real change.

“It’s about being real and honest with your audience. There are countless ways to gain favor through employee benefits. For example, other big brands have implemented things like student loan reimbursement, stock options and savings and retirement plans. Short term, Chipotle will continue to sell tacos but long term they must show their audience that they are a quality company overall,” says Ditto.

For its part, Chipotle denies any wrongdoing in the case of wage theft. It’s promising to fight the case in court.

When reached for comment, Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold reiterated to that the case has been around for awhile, it’s just been bogged down in the legal system. Said Arnold,  “We have maintained throughout that we don’t think it has any merit at all. In fact we are a company that provides a whole lot for our employees that most companies don’t.”

Online, Chipotle touts its competitive employee compensation (which hovers around $9.30 for crew members starting out, according to Glassdoor) great perks (free food) and says it strives to promote from within to allow burrito makers a chance to move up the literal food chain.

But Turner’s lawyer says Chipotle’s corporate offices are turning a blind eye to what's really going on in stores around the country. 

The Plaintiff’s attorney Andrew Quisenberry, of Bachus and Schanker Law Firm in Denver, Co., says the former employees are owed money no matter what.

“Chipotle's position has been to point the finger at what they think are rogue managers the employees position is to say that it’s an issue rampant throughout all the stores," Quisenberry told “The position we hold is we want all the employees to be paid for the work they perform. Period.”