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One of the most successful fast casual restaurant chains now faces the biggest challenge in its history. Hundreds of Chipotle Mexican Grill customers got sick last year after eating at branches across the country. The company's trying to determine the source of the foodborne illnesses. Once it does, it faces an even bigger challenge. As NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, it has to convince customers it's safe to come back.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Chipotle boasts that it serves food with integrity. Its meats are said to be naturally raised. It serves fresh ingredients and it hand-prepares food in front of its customers. This image has been a big part of Chipotle's remarkable growth over the years, says Andrew Alvarez, an analyst at IBISWorld.
ANDREW ALVAREZ: To eat at Chipotle was sort of the ethically and ecologically right thing to do, which resonated with a great deal of consumers.
ZARROLI: Then last year disaster struck. In December, dozens of customers in Boston were sickened by a norovirus outbreak. Before that came a salmonella outbreak in Minnesota and a pair of E. coli infections. Some 500 people in all were said to be sickened after eating at Chipotle. John Stanton, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University, says the company's image has taken a big hit.
JOHN STANTON: They've kind of positioned themselves as a special company, you know, that caters to the fresh and the delicious product, et cetera. And they've let people down. And when you let people down, they take that pretty seriously.
ZARROLI: In the wake of these outbreaks, Chipotle says its sales have fallen by as much as 11 percent. And the company, once a Wall Street favorite, has seen its stock price fall 33 percent in three months. Company officials say they are trying hard to discover the source of the outbreaks. They're promising a radical overhaul of their food preparation techniques and an expanded effort to train employees in food safety. Here was founder Steve Ells in an appearance on NBC's "Today" show last month.
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STEVE ELLS: This was a very unfortunate incident, and I'm deeply sorry this happened. But the procedures we're putting in place today are so above industry norms that we are going to be the safest place to eat.
ZARROLI: But that message is something of a hard sell to customers, says John Stanton.
STANTON: I mean, my first question, as soon as he said that, was why didn't they do that originally? I mean, they obviously weren't doing all they could do to make their products so safe. And they're now paying the price for it.
ZARROLI: Stanton says Chipotle does deserve credit for quickly closing stores where the outbreaks occurred. But it has more to do. Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern's Kellogg School, says the most important task facing Chipotle right now is to discover the source of the various illnesses. Then it needs to work on repairing its image. Calkins says it will take time.
TIM CALKINS: They need to get out there and get people feeling good again about Chipotle. They've got to invest a lot in advertising so that when people think about Chipotle they're not thinking about food safety but they're thinking about all of that great brand and the food they love so much.
ZARROLI: Calkins says other companies, such as Toyota, have come back from big public relations disasters, so it is possible. But he says it will take time for Chipotle to crawl out of the hole it stumbled into. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
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