Chipotle will close all of its stores on Feb. 8 for a much-needed collective check-in. The Chicago Tribune reports that the restaurants will be shut down nationwide “for a few hours next month to talk about food safety.” This comes in the wake of a series of foodborne illness traced to the restaurant that has diners fleeing to other establishments.
Citing a Bloomberg story, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias suggests that the chain likely expanded too fast for its own good, leaving it unable to maintain its own safety standards. Its current crisis, though, isn’t just about its actual safety record; it’s also about the company’s inability to live up to its own image. Having spent years selling itself as a place of purity and health—sometimes by way of deeply dubious claims—Chipotle unintentionally emphasizes the unhealthy impurities that have found their way into its restaurants. What’s more, as Rachel Gross recently noted in Slate, some of Chipotle’s problems may actually be a consequence of its commitment to organic, direct-from-the-farm goods. Either way, this is as much a problem of public relations as it is one of public health.
With its companywide shutdown, then, Chipotle is attempting something akin to a hard reset. It’s a bit like turning off your computer when your browser starts to run slowly—a possibly extreme action that just might clear things up. There are smaller steps you could take—dumping your browser cache or closing a few memory intensive programs—but sometimes the nuclear option is the best one. It also may be the smartest course of action under the circumstances, since, as Gross pointed out, it’s still not clear where or how some of the pathogenic ingredients entered Chipotle’s supply chain. While it doesn’t sound like the restaurant will be undergoing some total overhaul—the Tribune’s reporting suggests that the closure will mostly serve as an information session for employees—shutting down may still provide a much needed refresh.
Chipotle’s actions also aren’t unprecedented in the business world: In December, the Wall Street Journal wrote that some experts were suggesting Chipotle should follow the model of Johnson & Johnson, which pulled every bottle of Tylenol from store shelves after a cyanide scare in 1982. That move proved wise, helping restore and even amplify consumer confidence in the embattled pharmaceutical company. One observer cited in the Journal proposed that Chipotle shut down “for a week in a symbolic gesture to show customers that it is doing everything it can,” which is a far cry from closing for a few hours for an all-hands meeting. Nevertheless, even this smaller approach is likely a wise move, and maybe even one that actually will make the restaurant a little safer than it already is.
Despite, or perhaps because of, obvious concerns, Chipotle may be the safest place you could eat right now, as Gross wrote this week. “Post-scandal,” Gross observed, “Chipotle is likely now on its best behavior to avoid another outbreak.” This one-day closure is both a symptom of that and a way of signaling it. So, if you have to pass on your Feb. 8 burrito, remember that it’s not because Chipotle’s dirty; it’s because the chain wants you to know that it’s getting clean. Given the hit that the company’s sales have taken since its troubles began, it better hope that consumers get the message.