Expert: Chipotle on right track to win back customers

FILE - This Dec. 27, 2015 file photo, shows a Chipotle restaurant at Union Station in Washington. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

YOUNGSTOWN,Ohio (WKBN) – After suffering from several e. Coli, salmonella and norovirus outbreaks in recent months, Chipotle decided that it will close the doors of its restaurants for a few hours to conduct food safety meetings.

The closure will happen Monday, February 8.

The meeting is designed to get back on solid ground after slipping sales at the restaurant chain and stock values plunging over the last three months. Chipotle also says it will start a marketing push in February to begin its road to recovery. News reports say the company will give out free food at some of its restaurants as part of that push.

Youngstown State University Professor Adam Earnheardt, who teaches communications and social media classes, said the company is already reaching out to customers on social media to soften the blow.

“If a customer is dissatisfied, which they’ve been getting a lot of lately, they’ll respond back to those people in a very public way,” he said.

Earnheardt said he tweeted the company and got a response within minutes.

“They said we do whatever we can to interact with our fans,” he said. “I thought that was cool, and here I am just making a general statement about Chipotle, and they respond to that tweet in a very public way.”

The e.Coli outbreak at Chipotle may bring back memories of another restaurant that was dealt a blow with health issues.

In 2003, Chi-Chi’s — a Mexican restaurant chain — closed its Beaver Valley Mall location after many customers became sick with Hepatitis A. The illness was linked to raw green onions.

Chi-Chi’s eventually closed all of its restaurants in the United States, although it still has operations in other countries.

Could Chipotle go the way of Chi-Chi’s? Earnheardt doesn’t think so. He said marketing is handled much differently today.

“The crisis management thing has changed,” he said. “You had a few days to respond to a crisis. Now, it’s immediate. You have seven minutes to respond to a crisis sometimes.”

Earnheardt said Chi-Chi’s had a large customer base, but it was harder to reach out to them without the widespread use of social media. Chipotle, he said, is handling its social media reactions with customers well.

“So far, what I’ve seen seems positive,” he said. “I do know this for sure — they will be a case study in textbooks for the next 10 years.

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