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3 Lessons Restaurants Can Learn From the Decline of Chipotle

Posted by Donald Burns on 4/17/17 1:00 PM in Industry News & Trends, Restaurant Marketing

chipotle sales

The funny thing about fame is that it can become a double-edged sword.

We crave it for our brand and we love it when are on top. Naturally, we loath it when a public relations nightmare hits the front page. You quickly fall to become an internet joke and the subject for memes.

Yeah, fame is fickle. But no need to tell this to Chipotle.

Chipotle was the poster child for restaurant chain success. They rose to the top and had guests waiting in long lines for their oversized burritos.

A couple food borne illness outbreak later, and now that same chain has seen the negative impact that bad PR can bring. It’s proving to be a long road to recovery for this brand.

So what lessons can you learn here to prevent the same from happening to you and your restaurant?

Lesson #1: Protect Your Brand

When you market your brand, it becomes a brand promise in the eyes of your guests. Make sure your brand can deliver on this promise.

Chipotle had a brand promise of “food with integrity.” More than once, they broke that promise. That is why they are finding it to be a bumpy recovery. Break your promise and you have broken trust. Brands live and die by the trust they build between them and their customers.

Make sure you are constantly asking yourself questions to keep your brand on track.

Are you living your brand promise?

You must not only talk the game, you need to deliver and live your brand promise. You must be exactly as you say you are. If you offer authentic regional Mexican cuisine, why would you have a margherita pizza? You must have a solid brand identity that is consistent in the message you are sending out.

After all, if you are confused about who you are, how do you think your guests feel?

How is your brand perceived by our guests?

Once again, it’s hard to shake a bad perception about your brand. Whole Foods has been fighting the “whole paycheck” meme for years now, and it does not look like it’s going to slow down. When you get a bad nickname you will need to fight twice as hard to shake it.

Can it be done? Only time and a lot of positive marketing will tell. 

Lesson #2: Just Be Honest

One of the things to take away from any PR nightmare is this: you must tell the truth.

If you have built a relationship of trust between you and your guests, then being honest with them is the only course of action. Too many restaurants like to point the blame at others or discredit them in order to take the spotlight off of themselves.social media for restaurants

Be careful about shell game tactics with the power of the internet. There are people that will dig deep with research - those are the ones that will expose the truth. That will just deepen the bad publicity hole you might be in. Think before you reply or take your issues online.

Arguably, Chipotle handled this pretty well. But what would have happened if they didn't admit the mistake and take action to fix it?

As a restaurant owner, you might say something you will regret, go to erase it, and think it’s okay...only to have a screen shot of your post come back to haunt you. You always need to remember the word-of-mouth is now world-of-mouth with one simple click. 

Brands that are transparent and authentic will come across as being real. When you are real, your guests will give you another chance if the transgression does not violate the rules of society (let’s face it, if they find out you are using horsemeat as a filler in a burger...you may have some issues that are beyond repair).

Being true to yourself is the sign of true brand power. Some brand are alike Icarus and fly too close to the sun with wings made from wax. The only thing harder than climbing to the top is the sudden fall to the bottom.

Lesson #3: Your Comeback Must Be Earned

When you are recovering from bad publicity you need to eat a slice of humble pie first and swallow it down with a glass of pride.

Too many brands that suffer a blow to their reputation keep the same highbrow attitude that they had while at the top. When you take a hit, you need to ask yourself a reflective question like: Is it true?

In a situation like this, the road to recovery is self-honesty. You need to admit that you are the problem and the solution. Own your problems and search for solutions. Oh, and always search for at least three viable and actionable solutions. Two is just a dilemma, you have either this or that. When you have three options you are at choice.

You always want to be at choice. Always.

Rebuilding relationships is a real challenge. Don’t try to buy loyalty. That is a surface solution that will bring a temporary reward. Giving away free burritos is a good stunt, however when you broke trust because of a food safety issue…do you think free food rebuilds that?

Yeah, that’s okay…keep your burrito.

Instead, how about showing me you are a brand of personality and people and not a cold corporate façade? Branding takes life when you make your brand connect with the one thing we all have in common…the emotion of being human.

Do you think Chipotle is on the road to recovery? Let us know in the comments below!

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Written by: Donald Burns

Donald Burns, The Restaurant Coach™ is the leading authority, author and international coach on how restaurant owners, operators and culinary professionals go from just good to becoming exceptional. He helps independent operators create organizations that thrive and bring out their workers' natural strengths to reach their peak potential. A sought-after advisor in the areas of menu design & engineering, restaurant operations, rebranding, social media marketing, culinary consulting, team development, behavioral dynamics, productivity & peak performance.


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