Praise and Pitfalls

For good reason, Chipotle has long been one of the standard bearers for fast-casual restaurants.

Pass by a Chipotle location at lunch time and the lines would be out the door, no matter the weather. A combination of trendy industrial d├ęcor and thumping music help establish each location's club-like ambiance. In fact, seeing this scene play out at a location near our office prompted one of my colleagues to compare visiting Chipotle to what it must have been like hitting Studio 54 back in the 1970s, minus the velvet ropes and bouncers, of course.

But it is more than the hip atmosphere that makes Chipotle a dining destination for many. The company's commitment to sustainable issues is more than marketing. Chipotle began sourcing its ingredients from local suppliers long before doing so became as popular as it is today. And, according to insiders, future store prototypes will introduce greater efficiencies and lessen the impact these locations have on the environment.

The backbone of this fast-casual juggernaut remains the efficient and open kitchen and service line. Customers in the queue can watch ingredients go from prep table to tortilla. The messages of transparency and freshness abound. After gazing at a low-tech menu board that epitomizes high efficiency, customers get to pick and choose what goes into their orders, leaving them basking in the afterglow that only customizing an order can create.

Countless other fast-casual concepts try to emulate this operational platform that turns customers into brand loyalists. When a new fast-casual concept arrives on the scene, which seems to be an almost daily occurrence, it's not at all uncommon for their founders to proclaim they want to become the Chipotle of their market segment. That's pretty high praise.

Today Chipotle is making headlines once again. This time it's for all the wrong reasons: food safety lapses. A model that so many have tried to emulate for so long has now come under intense scrutiny from every imaginable angle. Chipotle understands its model and continues to take corrective actions such as looking at how it sources certain ingredients and updating its procedures surrounding food prep, cooking and holding. If any chain can bounce back from something like this, it's Chipotle.

But the lesson here is undeniable: Food-borne illness does not discriminate. It goes anywhere it's invited, even if an operation unwittingly opens its doors to this unwanted guest. And that includes high-performing restaurant concepts like Chipotle.

Operators from all segments need to remain diligent in their daily food safety efforts and do more than simply follow protocol. They must look for ways to enhance their current procedures and continue to invest in those technologies that will allow them to maintain food-safe environments. In doing so, operators need to leverage the expertise of their supply chain partners, who need to provide the best solutions for the challenges their customers face.

Doing so will allow the industry to keep making headlines for the right reasons: continued growth and customer satisfaction.