For four glorious hours, Moe’s Southwest Grill was the burrito king.
While every Chipotle in the country closed its doors Monday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for a company-wide food safety meeting in response to its recent E. coli outbreaks, the smaller, queso-serving casual Mexican chain celebrated its day in the limelight.
While Chipotle was still mid-meeting, the official Moe’s account fired off a pointed tweet: “We’re open all day February 8th,” accompanied by a video of a man in a burrito costume playing a guitar bearing the dubious pun “Guac N’ Roll.” (Earlier in the day, the mascot could be seen doing pushups, preparing for his 15 minutes of fame).
The Chipotle competitor also took out a full-page newspaper ad reading “We’re Open Especially on February 8th” to advertise its “Rebound Burrito” promotion—a buy one, get one free coupon that hopefully suggests “Here’s to Moving On.”
Chipotle also tried to make light of its own brief closure by inviting customers to text “Raincheck” for a free burrito. Their corporate Twitter account, which went eerily silent in the early days of the food-safety crisis, worked double time telling followers that they’d be open in just a few more hours.
Eager not to be forgotten, Qdoba took advantage of Chipotle’s closure to start offering customers an unspecified “lunch offer” via Twitter direct message.
In short, it was the spectacular food fight we all knew was coming when Chipotle announced they would be taking a single lunch off for a food-safety meetup.
Whatever value Chipotle’s widely publicized food-safety meeting held for its employees, over 50,000 of whom reported watched it live via broadcast, it may not have been the faith-restoring PR initiative the company hoped for.
For one, the food safety meeting lasted just over an hour and a half despite the four-hour company-wide closure. And despite advance reports that concerned customers would be able to eavesdrop on the meeting through Twitter’s live-streaming app Periscope, Chipotle only publicly broadcast a minute and a half of co-CEO Steve Ells discussing a local grower-support initiative.
Chipotle’s chief creative and development officer Mark Crumpacker had previously promised “a detailed story about what happened.” Judging from the meeting, however, that story may never be told.
In an excerpt of the meeting that Chipotle provided to The Daily Beast, Co-CEO Monty Moran said, “While we did extensive testing and research to find out which ingredient may have been contaminated with E. coli, we still do not know for sure what it was, and we probably never will know.”
The CDC has previously told The Daily Beast that the agency “may never be able to identify or pinpoint a specific food source from the restaurant” that led to the E. coli outbreaks, which affected at least 60 people in 14 states, leading to 22 hospitalizations. The CDC has since stated that the Chipotle outbreaks “appear to be over,” with the most recent illness reported on Dec. 1, 2015.
In lieu of providing new information about the E. coli outbreaks, Ells once again apologized for them and pledged that the company is taking steps to prevent future cases of foodborne illness.
Chipotle has since implemented a new food-safety program, that includes more rigorous testing, preparing some produce in central kitchens, blanching certain ingredients to kill germs, and changing its marinating techniques for steak and chicken. In addition to this program, Ells announced Monday that the company would invest up to $10 million to help the chain’s local suppliers meet food-safety standards.
Whether those new initiatives can save the ailing king of casual Mexican is another story. Chipotle’s tumbling stock took an upward turn in early February after the CDC’s announcement that the crisis “appear[s] to be over,” but investors remain cautious.
Meanwhile, judging from their handling of Monday’s closure, fast Mexican competitors are eager to dance on Chipotle’s grave should the company fail to rally.
Thanks to Moe’s, we know that there is at least one man out there in a sweaty burrito suit, watching the stock exchange, hoping that his lucky break can keep up.