Fast casuality: Chipotle's road to recovery: after a rash of foodborne illnesses struck customers late last year, the fast-casual company that touted 'food with integrity' has an ongoing public relations crisis on its hands.

Author:Peterson, Eric
 
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It's just as I remember it. The world's first Chipotle Mexican Grill on East Evans Avenue in Denver, the former Dolly Madison Ice Cream shop where founder and co-CEO Steve Ells launched his burrito empire in 1993.

The place is a point of civic pride. I'd say Tve eaten 100 burritos at this very Chipotle, and I always point it out to visiting friends. Today there are more than 2,000 locations--but this was the first.

I realized when I was assigned this story that I hadn't eaten at this or any other Chipotle for at least six months. It's time to go back.

After a string of E. coli, salmonella, and nonvirus cases at Chipotle locations across tine country in late 2015--and a subsequent federal criminal investigation--same-store sales plunged 30 percent after years of defying gravity.

So did the stock price: After flirting with $750 last fall, it crashed to earth with a resounding thud, dropping by nearly 40 percent to $460 as of early April. Some analysts are bearish, and bracing investors for further losses.

The collapse has been that much more spectacular because of the company's "Food with Integrity" pitch. Late-night hosts have had a field day with it. Perhaps because Chipotle moved the goalposts for the entire industry, the backlash to its failings has been especially severe.

In response, Chipotle unveiled new protocols, gave away free burritos and guacamole and replaced AOR Edelman with Burson-Marsteller as its PR agency of record as it readies for an unprecedented push into traditional advertising.

"I think the kinds of things they're doing are well thought-out and will be effective," says John Imbergamo, a Denver-based restaurant publicist and consultant who's done business as The Imbergamo Group for more than 25 years. "One thing you want to do is populate the restaurants. People don't like to eat in restaurants that aren't busy."

Thus, he sees Chipotle's recent giveaways as a good move. "There's nothing more effective than giving away free food," says Imbergamo, while noting that it's not cheap to dole out freebie guacamole tubs and burritos: "When you multiply that by 2,000 stores, that's a pretty big number." But getting regulars to return is a key to long-term recovery, he adds. "In the world of fast casual, loyalty is kind of a big deal. If you're a regular Chipotle-goer, that's golden to them."

The company also needs to amp up attempts to win new converts, he notes. "They haven't felt the need to advertise to any great extent to this point. This...

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