Technology to help Chipotle Avoid Future Outbreaks

Chipotle, the fast-food pioneer that coined the term “fast casual,” has had a rough couple of months. Since July 2015, the chain has faced two Norovirus outbreaks, two E. coli outbreaks and one Salmonella outbreak — all of which lead to multiple class-action lawsuits and a criminal investigation. Most recently an investor lawsuit was filed claiming Chipotle failed to maintain food safety standards and disclose potential risks to shareholders. Ouch. Needless to say, the stock price has taken a beating.

In response, Chipotle took a number of steps to put its customers and shareholders at ease. First, Chipotle closed all of its locations on February 8th, 2016 to hold a national staff meeting on food safety. Second, founder and Co-CEO Steve Ells issued a letter of apology, vowing that Chipotle would be “committed to becoming known as the leader in food safety.” Finally, Chipotle outlined a series of initiative on its website to tackle the food safety issue. 

The initiatives focus on two areas of concern: ingredient/supplier safety and restaurant/food preparation. For the most part, the supply-side safety initiatives make sense. Chipotle’s plans to implement better supplier testing and the preparation of certain ingredients at a separate facility. In theory, this should reduce the risk of serving Salmonella-infected tomatoes as was the case with the outbreak in Minnesota. It’s not perfect — short of testing 100% of the ingredients (not a financially viable option), there is always a risk contaminants will slip detection. But the initiate is proactive and seems manageable.

The next set of protocols relate to food preparation and restaurant safety and rely almost entirely on Chipotle’s ability to re-train staff. After reviewing the protocols closely, I wonder how they plan on implementing them. Does anyone really believe that closing stores for a day is enough time to train every employee on new procedures? After all, one slip up at one location and it’s back to the courthouse. Or worse yet, a store manager is going to take the fall when inevitably, human error rears its ugly head. If I’m sitting at Chipotle headquarters, I’m praying no new safety issues occur during this challenging period of operational implementation. 

ZINIER: Technology that Ensures Accountability

What’s really needed is a system that gives Chipotle visibility and assurance that their new protocols are being followed — a system that ensures accountability. At ZINIER, we’ve built just such a system (full disclosure: I am one of the founders). In the remainder of this article, I’ll explore Chipotle’s on-premise food safety procedures and outline how ZINIER’s cloud-based platform could help Chipotle implement them effectively.

First a little background. At ZINIER, we’ve built a platform that we believe can help any restaurant or retail chain ensure consistency and operational excellence. Using mobile and cloud technology, clients first import their locations and staff to our web app. Headquarters can then create and send tasks, checklists, guidelines, surveys and audits to their on-the-ground staff who view and send back results using the ZINIER mobile app.

Because ground staff and managers don’t always have access to a desktop, a mobile-first approach to bridging the communication divide is critical. And with geo-fencing technology and the ability to request images and videos for validation, the ZINIER platform is both powerful and versatile.

Implementing Chipotle’s On-Premise Safety Initiatives

With the ZINIER platform up-and-running, Chipotle would be able to quickly and efficiently implement each of its new safety initiatives. Let’s explore how this would work for each initiative as outlined on the Chipotle website.

Chipotle Initiative: Marinate chicken and steak only at night / Produce blanching

  • Chicken and steak are marinated only at the end of the night — only after other fresh ingredients have been prepped and put away. This procedure is important because raw meats can have germs on them that might come in contact with other ingredients.
  • 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. This does not affect flavor.

ZINIER Solution

Chipotle could tackle new food prep initiatives like these in a few simple steps. First, they’d want to create a step-by-step guide for each procedure by creating a new “Task” from the web app. ZINIER makes it simple to create exactly these types of of guidelines, either from scratch or using images that Chipotle has undoubtedly already created. At the end of step-by-step instructions, Chipotle could ask the employee to either sign-off that the process was completed or take a time-stamped, geo-tagged picture for extra validation. 

Chipotle would then set this task to launch on a recurring, daily basis to all of its store managers. Managers at each store would then be push-notified from the ZINIER mobile app and asked to complete the task daily. Finally, from our powerful analytics dashboard, headquarters can view the status and results of each task in real-time. 

The wonderful thing about setting up a recurring task is you only have to do it once. Theoretically, Chipotle could set up recurring tasks for EVERY operational protocol, launch them, and allow ZINIER to automate the rest. In essence, we are automating micro-management. Powerful stuff.

Chipotle Initiative: Heightened Restaurant Sanitation

We also require a comprehensive range of cleaning and sanitizing protocols, such as:

  • High frequency of cleaning and sanitizing high-contact areas during service
  • Restaurant-wide cleaning and sanitizing procedures at the end of each day

ZINIER Solution

Similar to the solution above, creating a task and guideline for any new sanitation procedure is simple. In addition to giving Chipotle operational visibility, employees are reminded of proper protocols which they can reference at anytime.

Chipotle Initiative: Audits & Inspections

We follow a rigorous restaurant inspection program:

  • Weekly inspections by Chipotle field leaders trained in food safety
  • Multiple annual inspections by Chipotle corporate food safety team
  • Frequent inspections by independent restaurant health experts
  • Regular inspections by local government health officials

ZINIER Solution

Launching audits on the ZINIER platform could save Chipotle both time and money. Chipotle can create comprehensive questionnaires with the ability to request photos and videos taken directly from an auditor’s mobile device. And with powerful dash-boarding and analytics, Chipotle can compare results across locations and notify location managers if responses fall below certain thresholds.

Chipotle Initiative: Employee Wellness and Incentive Structure

Our teams are trained and evaluated to ensure that food safety is their top priority.

  • Our paid sick leave program — one of the few such policies to exist at a national restaurant chain — enables workers to stay home when they are not well. In addition to offering regular sick days, we also have programs to extend sick leave when circumstances warrant.
  • Our incentive structure rewards restaurants that score well on food safety
  • The senior manager on duty during each shift is designated “food safety owner” responsible for checking that all procedures are carefully followed

ZINIER Solution

One powerful feature built into the ZINIER platform is the ability to track staff performance when completing tasks or surveys. For example, want to know which employees had the highest percentage of tasks completed on-time? No problem. With a little planning, Chipotle could use ZINIER to score employees on food safety performance and reward outstanding employees.


Chipotle’s new food safety protocols are certainly a step in the right direction. But whether or not they prevent future outbreaks will largely be determined by Chipotle’s ability to execute. For a company with the tagline “Food with Integrity,” it’s important that they execute quickly and flawlessly — something the ZINIER platform could certainly assist them in doing.