How Should Chipotle Product Managers Be Handling Their Current Food Poisoning Problems?

Chipotle has food safety issues that are hurting their sales
Chipotle has food safety issues that are hurting their sales
Image Credit: Mike Mozart

In the modern restaurant industry, most of the challenges of preparing and serving food to customers have been solved. This means that product managers spend their time working on trying to make the process of buying food from their restaurants easier and quicker for customers. However, over at Chipotle they’ve run into some problems with the food that they serve and this is causing their product managers to have to scramble to try to fix problems that they thought that they had already solved.

What Went Wrong At Chipolte

Chipolte is a restaurant that serves Mexican food. There are a lot of other restaurants out there that do the same thing. In order to distinguish their food from everyone else’s, the Chipolte product managers have developed an obsession with serving high-quality, fresh ingredients. This is a key part of their product development definition. This has resulted in Chipolte becoming very popular with consumers who are seeking something different from traditional fast food. That’s something that we could all put on our product manager resume.

Earlier last year Chipotle ran into a problem with one of its suppliers of pork. This vendor was not following animal welfare standards and so Chipotle was forced to pull pork off of its menu for several months. Soon after this challenge was resolved, they were hit with cases of their customers becoming sickened by eating at their restaurant. Chipolte was linked to three cases of foodborne illness: a norovirus outbreak in Simi Valley, California, cases of salmonella in Minnesota which were traced back to tomatoes shortly after, and then E. coli in the Pacific Northwest. The result of all of these problems was that the chain was forced to close its 43 restaurants in Washington and Oregon.

So why in this day and age is Chipolte having these types of problems? People looking into the situation all seem to agree that having three outbreaks over the course of two to three months is highly unusual. There is a growing chorus of people saying that the Chipolte corporate leadership needs to step back at look at their food safety culture. The product managers at Chipotle have always known that they vulnerabilities. They believe that they may be at a higher risk for food-borne illness outbreaks than some competitors due to their use of fresh produce and meats rather than frozen, and their reliance on employees cooking with traditional methods rather than automation.

What The Product Managers Are Doing To Fix Things

It would be great if we product manager could prevent problems like this from happening in the first place. However, all too often we can’t. When we have an event happen that effects our ability to sell our product we need to react quickly. One of the challenges that the Chipolte product managers are facing is that they are not really sure what is causing their problems. The recent string of events at Chipotle raises questions about whether there are shortcomings in its food safety practices or supply chain, or whether it has simply been the victim of some serious bad luck.

The Chipolte product managers knew that they needed to take action quickly. One of the first things that they did was to hire two food safety consulting firms to assess their standards. This provides everyone with the assurance that knowledgeable outsiders will be taking a look at how Chipolte prepares its food in order to determine if this could be the source of their outbreaks.

Additionally, the Chipolte product managers immediately closed all of their restaurants in the area of the outbreak out of an abundance of caution, even though the vast majority of these restaurants had no reported problems. The product managers then had each of the stores conduct additional deep cleaning and full sanitizing of its restaurants in the area. They then went one step further and had their restaurants tested by the company and the health departments, as well as their food and distribution centers.

What All Of This Means For You

Solving problems is a key part of what it means to be a product manager. However, there is nothing more frustrating with being faced with a problem that you don’t know how to go about solving. There’s nothing on our product manager job description that tells us how to deal with a situation like this. Over at the Chipolte restaurant chain, they’ve experienced an outbreak of different types of food poisoning that has their product managers scrambling.

Chipolte has based a great deal of its appeal on its use of fresh ingredients. However, this may possibly be causing their current problems. It is currently unclear why they are having the food poisoning problems that they are having.Outside experts have been brought in and a string of restaurants have been closed until a source of the problem is found. The Chipolte product managers are also making sure that their restaurants are very carefully cleaned and they are being tested along with Chipolte’s suppliers.

In a situation like this, when you don’t know exactly what to do, you still need to do something. You need to be able to show your customers that you are taking action in order to get to the bottom of the problem. The Chipolte product managers are doing exactly this. They are very clearly trying to show their customers that they understand the issue and they are dealing with it. We’ll have to see what the final cause of Chipolte’s problems are and if customers believe that the problems have really been solved.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: If the cause of the problem turns out to be how Chipolte prepares their food, what will the product managers have to do to get customers to come back?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As product managers, we spend a great deal of our time trying to figure out ways to get more people to buy our products. However, there is that very small collection of product managers who have extremely popular products who have a slightly different sort of problem that they have to work out. They really don’t have too much of a problem getting most people to buy their product because they have a great product development definition; however, now they have to figure out a way to get the last remaining few people who have not yet purchased their product to do so. We should all have such problems!