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Fast Casual Feature: Why Chipotle Should be Kicking Food-Safety Issues ‘New-School’

This article originally appeared on FastCasual.com . By Anthony Lye, CEO of HotSchedules It’s been a tough year for Chipotle; CNN reported that since August 2015, 64 Chipotle customers have been infected with salmonella, 58 with E. coli, and 140 with norovirus. Chipotle stock fell from $757 per share in August to a low of […]

This article originally appeared on FastCasual.com .

By Anthony Lye, CEO of HotSchedules

It’s been a tough year for Chipotle; CNN reported that since August 2015, 64 Chipotle customers have been infected with salmonella, 58 with E. coli, and 140 with norovirus. Chipotle stock fell from $757 per share in August to a low of $404 in January.

The Center for Disease Control announced on Feb. 1, 2016, that the norovirus outbreak linked to Chipotle “appears to be over.” And in hopes of rebounding, the iconic burrito chain instituted new food safety practices.

A week later, on February 8, Chipotle closed all 2,000 stores for several hours to hold a national staff meeting on food safety. They took time to reflect on their situation, and today, I suggest we do the same. What would you do to prevent a similar outbreak in your own operation? What more can you do to protect guests, your brand, and shareholders?

No restaurant is immune to illness outbreaks. However, I’d argue that “new school” technology could help restaurants teach, operationalize, and enforce food safety standards more effectively than “old school” practices. I’ll use one of Chipotle’s new procedures to illustrate how mobile, cloud, and “Internet of Things” technology could help prevent foodborne illness.

The old-school way

After the media maelstrom, Chipotle announced its new food safety plans in December 2015. It included safety testing of ingredients, new ingredient handling and preparation procedures, and ongoing audits and testing. In essence, Chipotle needed to retrain staff, change operating procedures, and ensure adherence to these new practices. To illustrate the old-school approach to a food safety overhaul, let’s use a new procedure from Chipotle’s food safety site:

“We blanch our lemons, limes, jalapeños, onions, and avocados, submerging them in boiling water for five seconds, making them safer by dramatically reducing – or even eliminating – germs on their skins.”

When a restaurant introduces a safety procedure, it needs employees to adopt the practice immediately. To retrain employees, corporate writes, prints, and delivers thousands of laborious paper manuals. Managers gather their staff before or after operating hours to read, discuss, and (hopefully) practice the new procedures. The steps go up on laminated signs or, more likely, appear on clipboards scattered throughout the kitchen.

The blanching procedure might require employees to check off a list of steps. Water is above XXX° F. Check. Timer is on and visible. Check. Lemons submerged for five seconds. Check. At the end of a week, one location could produce dozens of procedural checklists. Someone must manually enter these lists, from every location, into a spreadsheet for corporate.

Checklists don’t guarantee adherence. Live auditors must visit each location. Chipotle now requires weekly inspections by field leaders, multiple annual inspections by the food safety team, and “frequent“inspections by independent experts. In the old school approach, auditors must complete paper checklists. These, too, must be aggregated and entered somewhere corporate can verify the results and create an audit trail.

Thus, the old-school approach creates a dizzying amount of paperwork, duplication and manual data entry. The lag time between training, operationalizing, and verifying a new procedure is something consumers don’t have time for.

The new-school way

Let’s take the same procedure and give it the advantages of mobile, cloud, and IoT technology. First, the food safety team creates a training video showing how to properly blanch ingredients. They record it in five minutes, with a smartphone. The team bullets the steps and creates a quiz. This new training module is instantly pushed to Chipotle’s online training platform. Every staff member is given a deadline to complete the training module and post questions if anything is unclear. No paper manuals. No printing. No wasted time.

Second, instead of scattering clipboards in the kitchen, corporate loads the new procedure into the company’s shift communications tool. The new procedure is instantly pushed to all 2,000 locations, and it appears on tablets that are strategically placed in the food prep area. As an employee blanches the veggies and fruits, he taps the screen to check each step. The tool tracks his progress. Every procedure, from every restaurant, is aggregated in the cloud, where corporate can review it.

To ensure that locations follow the new procedure accurately, Chipotle connects an IoT thermometer and IoT timer to its boilers. The thermometer records if the blanching water is at or above the designated temperature during the procedure (by the way, the same type of device could also measure food temperatures in freezers, fridges, serving stations, etc.). The timer records if ingredients were actually blanched for five seconds. These devices deliver data to the cloud. If a procedure isn’t followed properly, the manager is alerted in real-time, with a mobile push notification.

Chipotle still sends regular inspectors and auditors, only they use a mobile app for auditing and they visit nonconforming locations first. They can check boxes, take picture, record videos, and send whatever evidence Chipotle requires. Upon completion, each audit is loaded into the cloud and aggregated with Chipotle’s food safety analytics. Without printing or manually entering a single document, Chipotle now has 360-degree view of food safety at every location. If anything goes awry, Chipotle can immediately address the problem and perhaps prevent another case of foodborne illness.

“Restaurants have no excuse for ‘choosing not to know’ about slack food safety standards. New school technologies are within budget for any restaurant operator, from the one-store family restaurant to an international brand like Chipotle.”

– Anthony Lye, CEO, HotSchedules

The scale of simplicity

The illness outbreaks at Chipotle remind us that no brand is immune to food safety debacles. And as you can see in the Chipotle example, instituting even one new procedure is complicated. If you were to introduce more than a dozen new procedures simultaneously, as Chipotle did, it’s easy to see how the old school approach would become complex and fragile at scale.

Restaurants have no excuse for “choosing not to know” about slack food safety standards. New school technologies are within budget for any restaurant operator, from the one-store family restaurant to an international brand like Chipotle.

The power of combining mobile, cloud, and IoT technology is that it preserves simplicity at scale. Whether you implement procedures at five restaurants or 2,000, the process is equally simple.

In the wake of Chipotle’s struggles, food brands are renewing and improving food safety measures. If your goal is to train, operationalize, and audit new procedures, don’t take the old school approach. Let technology simplify sweeping change, before poo hits the fan.

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