business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Chipotle found out the hard way that hell hath no fury like a burrito lover denied.

Free burrito rain checks were a key ingredient in Chipotle’s $50 million campaign to regain consumer confidence after its recent multi-state food poisoning outbreak. The fast casual chain closed all of its 2,000 outlets last Monday for a four-hour food safety virtual meeting for its 50,000 employees. To compensate for messing up patrons’ lunch plans, Chipotle offered a free burrito to those who texted “rain check” to a six digit number.

That’s when a hailstorm of complaints hit Chipotle’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Customers fumed that their texts were rejected by the system or went unanswered. Though there was fine print saying “limited quantities” on a first come, first serve basis, even more folks were furious that the online click response they got was “Darn, you just missed it.”

In the meantime, Chipotle’s competitors looked to capitalize on the category leader’s woes. Moe’s (that’s an acronym for Musicians, Outlaws and Entertainers) Southwest Grill took out a full page ad in USA Today that read, “We’re open, especially on February 8th” and continued its Moe Monday "buy one burrito, get one free" promotion. On Twitter, DosToros featured the hashtag #NoDaysOffHere and Qdoba chimed in with “Hunger Doesn’t Accept Rain Checks.” Freshii offered 50% percent off all “Mexican-inspired menu items,” complete with the hashtag #chipotfrii.

In an unanticipated turn of events, Maryland lawyer Henry Levin’s cell phone was flooded with 300 “rain check” texts from Chipotle customers who added an extra 2 to the six digit number and reached him. He did his best to respond. Chipotle reportedly was not interested in reaching out to those who texted the wrong number, but did offer Levine four free burrito vouchers.

For Chipotle founder Steve Ells and his team, the burrito brouhaha overshadowed the firm’s other efforts to prevent a repeat of the e. Coli and norovirus outbreaks that sickened 500 people last year. For a company that prided itself for serving “Food with Integrity,” the string of illnesses and eatery closings damaged its image and the bottom line. Profits plummeted in the fourth quarter compared to the previous year and wary diners stayed away.

Promising customers a free burrito to get them back was a smart move. Failing to deliver on that promise was a stupid mistake. I think Chipotle should have honored every “rain check” request, even if it came in after the small print 6 p.m. deadline. At MNB we often say you only get one chance to make a good first impression. You’re lucky to get any chance to restore a damaged reputation, and in my mind Chipotle bungled that well before 6 p.m.

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