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Fast Food

Chipotle offers freebies as sales plunge


Chipotle is using free food to convince people its food is safe as it reportedly considers rolling back some of its food testing measures. (AP)

Chipotle is giving away free burritos to combat the eeriness of empty stores and convince people that its food is safe.

The Denver chain made its first big push with freebies on Feb. 8 when it closed stores nationwide for a few hours so employees could participate in a food safety meeting after an E. Coli outbreak and other incidents sent sales plunging.

The company said 5.3 million people tried to download the mobile coupon for a free entree offered that day as a ‘‘rain check’’ for when stores were closed.

‘‘That was our first test to see how much people really wanted to come back to Chipotle,’’ said Mark Crumpacker, chief creative and development officer, speaking Wednesday at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Consumer and Retail Tech Conference.

The company has since also started mailing people coupons for a free entree. Crumpacker said there are about 6 to 10 million such offers in circulation already, out of the 21 million the company has planned. Those all expire by around May 15, he said.

Facing low sales and an expensive giveaway program,  The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Chipotle is considering rolling back some of the food safety measures it took after the outbreak that included processing more food in central “canteen” facilities, adding lemon juice to chopped vegetables, and testing all of their ingredients for pathogens. 

The new protocols have beef cooked in a central location up to a temperature that could kill foodborne pathogens, notably E. coli. That would mean they might be able to go without the expensive DNA-based pathogen testing.

The meat now arrives in restaurants pre-cooked in sealed bags, and restaurant workers heat it on the grill. This leaves no room for uncooked beef to cross-contaminate other foods, which it could have done when raw beef and chicken were marinated in restaurants nightly and grilled on site. The people familiar with the matter say that Chipotle is considering using the same method with chicken.

Company spokesman Chris Arnold said that safety, rather than cost, is a primary driver of changes it's made over the past months.

"I would note that testing is, and will continue to be an important part of the program. We have no plans to eliminate testing from the overall protocols," he said. 

Arnold calls the changes improvements and stresses that the company is not walking back on its safety measures. 

Moving into the summer, he said Chipotle might shift to ‘‘Buy One, Get One’’ free offers, or do more targeted mobile offers for free meals in regions of the country where a recovery in sales is lagging.

Crumpacker said the expiration dates on coupons give people that extra nudge they might need to go into a Chipotle again. Executives are concerned about the perception customers may have when they see empty restaurants.

Chipotle had become a star on Wall Street, with its restaurants packed and its sales booming. But now its restaurants are empty.

‘‘It was kind of eerie — and we’d hear this from customers. They would walk by a restaurant and see, god that was always busy, and now there’s no line whatsoever,’’ said Jack Hartung, Chipotle’s chief financial officer.

He said it was important to let the chain’s 2,000 restaurants ‘‘look like Chipotle again.’’

Moving into the summer,  Chipotle might shift to ‘‘Buy One, Get One’’ free offers, or do more targeted mobile offers for free meals in regions of the country where a recovery in sales is lagging.

The strategy will cost Chipotle. The company said Tuesday it expects to report a loss of $1 per share or more for the January-to-March quarter. That would mark its first loss since going public in 2006.

The loss would reflect a 36 percent sales decline at established restaurants in January, which was followed by a 26 percent drop for February, despite the extra day in the month this year. Costs, meanwhile, have spiked due to factors including the free burrito promotions, stepped up marketing and investments in food safety.

The company has taken a number of measures to ensure it doesn’t experience another food scare. That includes no longer leaving out lemon wedges by the soda fountain and napkins for customers to take as they please; people now need to ask for them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.