I haven’t been back to my local Chipotle for several months now, and that’s a shame. I’d been a fan of the place for a long time, ever since one opened up near my old office. Back then, when McDonald’s was the primary investor, Chipotle didn’t seem so intent on raising its own profile at the expense of the rest of the food chain. They seemed mostly intent on producing really good burritos that weighed slightly less than my firstborn child.
Somewhere along the line, Chipotle decided to become more of a mission than a food brand. It created an unflattering and inaccurate portrayal of the agriculture industry to show how they were above it all. It pulled carnitas from its menu, basically stating that the U.S. pork industry wasn’t good enough to supply meat for its restaurants. The message, though misleading, catapulted Chipotle to the top, gaining a loyal army of followers. The food was still good, even if all their meals came with an unwanted side of smugness. Chipotle became one of the most trusted food brands in America.
Those days are gone, at least for the time being. A string of foodborne illnesses have tanked stock prices, driven away customers and spawned a federal criminal investigation. Within the span of a year, Chipotle has gone from a top food brand to a punchline. It still has its defenders — including some on the lunatic fringe who swear that the E. coli outbreaks were part of a plot by Big GMO to destroy the company — and it surely will recover its lost sales and customer base. But the company that tried to put itself above the rest of the food industry is now just another fast food place.
That’s the thing about reputations. They’re an instant away from being lost. Think of all the athletes, politicians and actors who fell from grace from one bad mistake. Maybe it was a run-in with a law, an ill-advised tweet, or some other scandal that came to light. Sterling reputations have been ruined in less time than it took you to read this editorial.
I know most of our readers enjoy great reputations with their customers, and I don’t write this to scare you. You should appreciate the reputation that your company has earned and work diligently to maintain it. Don’t let a recall or anti-meat activists undo your hard work. Don’t put anything on social media that could come back to haunt you. If something goes wrong, take immediate steps to correct it and let your customers know you are fixing what went wrong. All the consumer trends point toward incredible opportunities for small and mid-sized processors. Don’t let any pitfalls get in the way of you and a successful, profitable 2016.