To hopefully win back frightened customers (coming off the news of 80 Boston College students who caught the flu from bad burritos), Chipotle executives say they’ve got a plan to make the chain “the best in the world at food safety.” Several of them pitched their solution in a presentation yesterday to Wall Street analysts, where co-CEO Steve Ells promised the group that the new plan is so far-reaching, it will put the company “10 to 20 years ahead of industry norms.”
In its response to the outbreaks, Chipotle has noted fresh ingredients ended up being a double-edged sword — bacteria grows more easily on food that isn’t precooked and then frozen. As the chain has already said, this means holding suppliers to higher standards in the future. Ells told the group these “robust testing procedures” will apply to everyone, “whether large or small.” (He also addressed concerns that these procedures might weed out local producers: “Some of the smaller suppliers might have a hard time implementing these robust testing procedures initially. We’ll help them. Not all will be on board for sure, but we think most will.”)
But Ells also said changes are coming to Chipotle’s food prep. The biggest is the creation of a commissary, where tomatoes in particular — the tainted ingredient behind its Minnesota salmonella scare — will get pre-diced and then undergo a “sanitary kill step” before being hermetically sealed for restaurants. Similar procedures will be added for other uncooked ingredients, like cilantro and lettuce, while fussier things like avocados will keep arriving at restaurants whole.
Chief financial officer Jack Hartung admitted these steps will be costly and, at least initially, less efficient. As a result, price hikes could be on the table, but he said likely not before 2017.